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Can bringing wetlands back to our coasts protect us from future megastorms?

Destroyed beach house in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on November 4, 2012 in Far Rockaway, NY
Shutterstock
Beach house in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Far Rockaway, N.Y.

Kevin Shanley says too many cities have an outdated approach to storm protection that makes them vulnerable to the coming mega-storms. The CEO of SWA Group, an international landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm, Shanley is an advocate of using “green infrastructure” -- human-made systems that mimic natural ones -- as bulwarks.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, people are taking note. Some experts believe New York City would not have sustained such severe damage had the original wetlands that lined the coasts not been uprooted by development. In fact, some parts of Staten Island remained relatively unscathed because they were protected by the massive Fresh Kills Park and its wetlands.

Kevin Shanley
SWA Group
Kevin Shanley.

What’s needed, Shanley says, are policy shifts “rooted in a natural system-approach that work with nature’s tremendous forces.” Beyond policy changes though, Shanley has also worked on projects, in Texas and elsewhere, that show how these human-made systems could work. But he cautions that more research is needed if communities’ lives and livelihoods are to rely on human-made nature.

Shanley was recently in Washington, D.C., speaking at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation on improving the resiliency of our coasts in an effort to protect them from increasingly damaging storms and sea-level rise brought on by climate change. I caught up with him there.

Q. What were the lessons of Hurricane Sandy?

A. There are real-world lessons and then “should-be” lessons. The real-world lesson is that everybody is at risk. These storms don’t just happen to Florida or Bangladesh. They can hit New York City. The storm could have hit Washington, D.C., with disastrous results. We’re not ready.

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In New Orleans, a Vietnamese community bounces back with urban agriculture

vietfarmers
Mary Queen of Vietnam Development Corporation

In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, many of the Christian Vietnamese who supported the U.S.-allied government in the south fled. Some ended up in camps in the Midwestern U.S., at least until the Archdiocese of New Orleans invited them to come to the Gulf of Mexico, where the climate was more like what they were used to in Vietnam. Many of the Vietnamese were also fisherman, so the Roman Catholic church thought they’d have a better chance if they could pick up their old trade in Louisiana.

Now, almost 40 years later, there are 8,000 Vietnamese concentrated in a one-mile radius in New Orleans East. The community of fisherman was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, and then the Deepwater Horizon debacle, but found ways to come together. At a recent EPA conference on repurposing industrial areas, or brownfields, Tap Bui, a community organizer at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation, discussed how this unique community recovered with sustainable aquaponics.

New Orleans East has 60 percent of the land mass of New Orleans but only 20 percent of its population. Before Katrina, there were high levels of poverty and unemployment. As the community fled the storm in late August, 2005, many residents wondered what they would come back to, Bui says. The storm destroyed the community's hospital and other basic services. Still, by the end of October, more than 2,000 people had returned, and the majority of residents eventually came back.

Meanwhile, implementing an “emergency master plan,” then-Mayor Ray Nagin turned a green space near their community into a landfill. The debris from damaged homes and commercial buildings across New Orleans had to be dumped somewhere. But soon pesticides and other chemicals were being dumped there, too, near a wetland and nature preserve. According to Bui, this spurred one of the first “cross-racial” collaborations ever in New Orleans East, a mass protest to shut down the landfill.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living

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Washington, D.C., wants to be the greenest city in the U.S.

congress-washington-dc-flickr-valerie.jpg
valerie2

Last month, standing at the Old Capitol Pump House, a restored building along the Anacostia River, Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray announced the launch of the long-awaited Sustainable D.C. plan. The result of an amazing public outreach process that involved more than 400 local green experts, over 180 public meetings involving 5,000 people, and 15 D.C. government departments and agencies, the plan is an attempt to make D.C. "the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the U.S.” by 2032. Less than two weeks after the announcement, drastic, across-the-board federal funding cuts kicked in, throwing the whole plan into question.

At the unveiling Feb. 20, Gray said D.C. already leads the nation in the number of green, healthy buildings per capita. New schools must now reach the LEED Gold standard. The district has signed on to the National Better Buildings challenge, aiming for 20 percent energy efficiency improvements across all buildings by 2020. And with the Sustainable DC Act of 2012 now signed into law, a new Property Assessment Clean Energy (PACE) program is underway, aimed at improving financing opportunities for greening commercial buildings and multi-family housing.

The district wants to be greener looking, too. There’s an accelerated tree-planting campaign, with 6,400 slated to be planted this season alone. The goal is a tree canopy that covers 40 percent of the city’s surface, which would put D.C. in the top tier of major cities worldwide. Beyond trees, the city is creating new stormwater infrastructure. According to the mayor, 1.5 million square feet of green roofs are already in place. Green streets, like the first green alley built in Ward 7, are also being rolled out, with more potentially coming soon in Chinatown. Green infrastructure technologies may get a local boost, too, with the $4.5 million that has been dedicated to “innovative pilot projects.”

The district already has the biggest bike share network in the U.S. The D.C. government now purchases 100 percent renewable energy, earning it designation as a No. 1 "green power community” from the Environmental Protection Agency. All of this action has led to a 12 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the past year.

Gray seemed to stress, however, that going green can’t just be the agenda of educated, liberal, white environmentalists. The diverse, multi-ethnic crowd seemed to underpin this point. “We need to focus on jobs, health, equity, and diversity, and the climate,” he said. So part of making D.C. more sustainable will involve “expanding access to affordable housing and economic development opportunities” for all, so that “we have one city,” Gray said. “We can’t push people out.”

Read more: Cities

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Amazing new house proves that green doesn’t have to mean expensive

Lakiya Culley and her sons
Martin Seck
Lakiya Culley and her sons

Lakiya Culley, an administrative assistant at the U.S. State Department and mother of three, just moved into one of the most innovative, energy-efficient houses in the U.S. – in a rather unlikely location.

Culley lives in Deanwood, a working class, primarily African American neighborhood of Washington, D.C., that has recently struggled with foreclosures. She is now the proud owner of an Empowerhouse, a home that produces all of its own energy, a feat made simpler by the fact that it consumes 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a conventional home.

Empowerhouse, which uses “passive house” technologies, was designed by students at the New School and Stevens Institute of Technology as part of the Solar Decathlon design competition, which was held on the National Mall in 2011. Developed in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, the house marks the first time in the Solar Decathlon’s history that a team partnered with civic and government organizations to make a house a reality in the District.

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A road map for urban agriculture in N.Y.C.

Although there are 700 urban farms and gardens spread throughout New York City's five boroughs, urban farming there still feels ad-hoc, somewhat tacked-on in many places. The gains have been slow and future progress isn’t guaranteed.

To boost the long-term prospects of urban farming in the U.S.’s biggest city, the Design Trust for Public Space and its partner, the Red Hook-based nonprofit Added Value, just launched a new report some three years in the making called "Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture," along with a companion website. The project seeks to create a comprehensive “road map” with the goal of helping stakeholders -- policymakers, community groups, farmers, and designers -- “understand and weigh the benefits” of urban agriculture, while making a compelling case for significantly ramping up local government support for this growing field. Basically, if you’ve been looking for a thorough examination of all the policy aspects of urban farming, this is it.

The Design Trust for Public Space has had a long history of strategically intervening in the public realm in New York City. It was a very early supporter of the vision of the High Line founders, and the group has recently been involved in redesigning New York's taxis and creating sustainable guidelines for the city's parks, buildings, and infrastructure.

Read more: Cities, Food

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David Byrne plays Scrabble with bike racks in Brooklyn

Photo courtesy of BAM.

You’ve probably heard by now that David Byrne, famous for “burning down the house” as lead singer of iconic New York City band Talking Heads, has been reborn as an avid bicyclist and transportation policy wonk, giving power point presentations in D.C. and the Big Apple. A few years ago, Byrne wrote The Bicycle Diaries -- a book, actually worth a read, about his tours of global cities by bike. In 2008, he partnered with the NYC Department of Transportation on a series of wild bicycle racks.

Now, Byrne has created a new set of funky, typographical racks for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). And bonus: These things will change over time.

Read more: Cities

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Prescription for healthier humans: More time at the park

Photo by Jeremy Blanchard.

“Parks are a part of our healthcare system,” said Daphne Miller, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. These green spaces are crucial to solving hypertension, anxiety, depression, diabetes -- “the diseases of indoor living.”

But parks officials and the medical profession still need more data to take aim at the many “naysayers on the other side” who don’t believe in what landscape architects (and many urban residents) value, Miller said. Luckily for all of us, a few scientists are doing innovative research, trying to capture that data.

Read more: Cities, Living

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D.C. unveils plans for awesome new green neighborhood

After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the Washington, D.C., government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District this week. The plan is designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. When it is completed, still decades out, it will transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the National Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination.

The project will go a long way toward “breathing new life into the city,” NCPC Chair L. Preston Bryant, Jr. said at a hearing Thursday. “We have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.”

The 110-acre, 15 square-block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes,” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers, says Elizabeth Miller, the landscape architect who is guiding the project. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access -- the barriers, the highways, and grade changes -- that keep people away.

Read more: Cities

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500 million reasons to rethink the parking lot

A version of this story first appeared on The Dirt.

Photo by Matt Johnson.

It doesn’t matter whether you have a Prius or a Hummer, you have the same environmental impact. So argues MIT landscape architecture and planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph in his fascinating new book, ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking.

Whatever could he mean? Cars, on average, are immobile 95 percent of the time, taking up the same 9-by-18-foot paved rectangle. All of those paved spaces increase runoff into streams and wetlands, create heat islands, increase glare and light pollution, and shape the character of our cities.

To grasp the magnitude of the problem, consider that there are 500 million surface parking lots in the U.S. alone. In some cities, parking lots take up one-third of all land area, “becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment,” Ben-Joseph writes.

But to this day, he says, “parking lots are considered a necessary evil; unsightly, but essential to the market success of most developments.” So the time is definitely ripe to redesign the lot.

Read more: Cities, Transportation

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Sky’s the limit: How two average Joes created NYC’s High Line

Robert Hammond. (Photo by Annie Schlechter.)

Excerpted from a longer interview in The Dirt.

Robert Hammond is co-founder and co-executive director of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit conservancy that manages the High Line, a public park built atop an abandoned, elevated rail line on the west side of Manhattan. He and his co-founder and director, Joshua David, have just published a book about their experience called The High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky.

Q. In the beginning of your book, you say that early on, living in Chelsea, you’d seen parts of the High Line, “but never realized all the bits and pieces connected.”

A. I lived in the neighborhood so I had always seen it when walking around, but I didn’t think it was all connected. I really didn’t think that much about it until I read an article in the New York Times in the summer of ’99 that said it was threatened with demolition. The article showed that it was a mile and a half long running through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, all the way up to Hell’s Kitchen near the Javits Convention Center. That’s when I first realized the whole extent of it.

I assumed someone would be working to preserve it. So many things in New York have preservation groups attached to them. But pretty quickly I found no one was doing anything for the High Line. I heard the proposed demolition was on the agenda for a community board meeting in my neighborhood so I went to my first community board meeting ever and sat next to Joshua, who I didn’t know at the time. By the end of the meeting, we realized everyone in the room was in favor of demolition except for us. So we exchanged business cards and we said, “Well, why don’t we start something together?”

Read more: Cities