Urban Landscapes as Building Blocks of Cities’ Resilience

by Chih-Wei G.V. Chang, ASLA

Riverfront Park
Resilient design at Wuhan Yangtze Riverfront Park / image: SASAKI

Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities through the Design of Innovative and Inclusive Urban Landscapes: a summary of the panel discussion at the 10th Global Forum on Urban Resilience
Bonn, Germany | June 26-28, 2019

For a decade, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability has been providing a global forum on urban resilience where local governments, researchers, businesses, NGOs and citizens could meet as equals, contributing and sharing with their first-hand experiences and know-how. Past years’ themes have included disaster risk reduction, insurance financing, urban food systems, refugee reception, and digitalization. To mark 10 years of experience and expertise-building in supporting cities to thrive in the face of challenges, this year the Resilient Cities Conference aimed to present a comprehensive view on delivering urban resilience: pathways towards implementing resilience; innovation in the realm of urban resilience; and building cohesive, healthy, and resilient communities. With the above goals in mind, for the first time the congress curated a special panel, “Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities through the Design of Innovative and Inclusive Urban Landscapes,” focusing on landscape architecture and how the profession delivers nature-based solutions in urban resilience building.

Why landscape architecture? At the forefront of shaping resilient urban environments, landscape architects are often challenged to translate complex site-specific risks into tangible transformation. This unique position requires deep an understanding of urban ecology, place-making, and stakeholder engagement to deliver impactful solutions. For many local governments and inter-governmental institutions, landscape architects’ trans-disciplinary working process could be an excellent model to inspire innovative pathways and holistic approaches.

To cover the theme from different perspectives, the congress invited two landscape practitioners, one city representative, and two landscape researchers to participate. They are: Michael Grove, ASLA, from Sasaki; Kotch Voraakhom, ASLA, from Porous City Network; Lee-Shing Fang from Kaohsiung City; Chih-Wei G.V. Chang from Gravity Praxis University of Cologne; and Antje Stokman from HafenCity University. The panel was moderated by Daniela Rizzi, Officer of Green Infrastructure and Nature-Based Solutions at the ICLEI European Secretariat.

The panelists shared their first-hand experience in resilience building in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. By engaging with the panelists and their processes of design thinking, the panel highlights insights on collaborative, design-driven problem-solving as a means of finding solutions for complex urban challenges and building more resilient cities.

Perspectives from the Panelists

Michael Grove, ASLA, Principal and Chair of Landscape Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Ecology at Sasaki, kicked off the panel with his presentation “At the Forefront of Change.” Illustrating action through project experiences, Grove outlined five ways landscape architects are responding to climate impact:

  1. Developing regional strategies with robust civic engagement;
  2. Implementing bold ideas that will change our relationship with the land;
  3. Stewards of native habitats and champions of conservation efforts;
  4. Thinking in non-traditional ways about how to design traditional landscapes;
  5. Changing how we design and build cities.

In each five climate-responding pathway, Grove gave vivid examples ranging from work on the Climate Ready Boston initiative to projects in China and Vietnam, showcasing landscape architects are taking a proactive approach to design for climate change with a strong focus on citizen engagement.

An integrated landscape approach prioritizes creative solutions that balance development needs with ecological and social imperatives, making cities more livable, equitable, resilient, and just:

“Developing innovative solutions to address the climate crisis requires thinking that integrates a wide variety of factors. Because landscape architects are trained as systems thinkers, this often allows us to see how a change to one system has a direct correlation to others.”

Grove argued that the ability of landscape architects to think big, establish regional strategies with community support, implement bold ideas, rethink our relationship to agriculture, champion conservation efforts, and change the status quo of how cities are designed will all contribute to helping solve climate change.

Kotch Voraakhom, ASLA, founder and CEO of Porous City Network, also contributed to the conversation from her social enterprise and design practice in Thailand. Her presentation brought the audience’s attention to Bangkok’s recent floods and the challenges in urban water management. Over a couple decades, the fast expansion of urbanized, paved areas leads to vulnerability and flood damages when facing extreme climate patterns. Besides, due to the lack of ground water recharge, the city is currently sinking 3 time faster than sea level rising.

Voraakhom used her own design practices in Landprocess to illustrate how a focused small-scale urban landscape can start to tackle climate resilience. In the case study of Chulalongkorn University Centennial Park, she designed tilted landforms to collect and store rain water as an urban sponge. Many stormwater management techniques are applied to this urban park, such as constructed wetlands, a green roof, an underground rain water reservoir, detention lawn, and retention pond. Today, CU Centennial Park is not only an ecologically functioning green space, but it is also one of Bangkok’s most vibrant public spaces, with intensive uses from students and citizens alike. However, Voraakhom said, “one park is not enough. We need hundreds more of such projects to bring Bangkok from brink of sinking.” She continued by showcasing additional “porous” projects she has engaged in and called for firm commitments of building urban resilience through respect of the water.

Chulalongkorn University Centennial Park / image: Landprocess

Lee-Shing Fang, of the Sustainable Development and Climate Change Adaptation Committee of Kaohsiung City, approached the resiliency building from the public sector’s angle. Fang shared Kaohsiung City’s experience in building a blue and green corridor with wetlands and flood detention basins. Only fifty years ago, Kaohsiung was a deeply polluted industrial city. Because of the distinctive rain pattern of Kaohsiung, in addition to water pollution, the city needs to develop a locality-specific measure to deal with short but intense rushes of water. Through years of experimentation and adaptations, the solution found was long-term planning in building the blue and green corridors with 21 restored wetlands and 13 man-made flood detention basins throughout the city. The systematic approach made the network more robust and flexible in responding to different environmental stresses.

The unique transformation process took decades and engaged diverse stakeholders and NGOs to coordinate the efforts: from site identification, land negotiation, and scheme development to implementation and adaptive maintenance. While the process was mostly led by grassroots organizations, the city moderated the conversations and provided legal and infrastructural assistance to facilitate the step-by-step implementation. This open process also helped to build social resilience and form a disaster-resistant community. The engaged citizens can better cope and recover through self-help and self-protection among residents, who can take immediate and efficient action to reduce the loss and damage in the event of flooding.

Through decades of efforts and multiple project implementations, Kaohsiung restored their water bodies from the heavily polluted ones to a network of blue and green infrastructure for both nature conservation and urban recreation. “Mother Nature has been prospering and decorating the ever-changing earth for millions of years. This is true resilience. If the human is wise and humble enough to learn from her, we will always have a beautiful, successful tomorrow,” Fang noted.

Wetland-imitative areas link available lands to form green and blue corridors. / image: Public Works Bureau of Kaohsiung City Government

Chih-Wei G.V. Chang, Project Director of Gravity Praxis from the University of Cologne, introduced a new paradigm in looking at landscape performance and landscape management that can help urban resiliency building. While most of the landscape practitioners work on local or site-specific adaptation, there are institutional level efforts to compile frameworks and metrics to advocate for smarter pathways in quantifying landscape benefits and value in both natural and social aspects. These efforts include ASLA’s Resilient Design guide and case studies, LAF’s Landscape Performance Series, and the Sustainable SITES Initiative®. These powerful tools, for both landscape architects and municipal managers, contribute to more transparent planning and design decision making, and facilitate evidence-based policies.

However, Chang also pointed out that it is crucial to understand the limitations of “landscape performance” and not to blindly follow the given rules. True sustainability needs to recognize regional climate differences among cities, as well as socioeconomic characteristics in assigning values and priorities. To resolve each city’s unique challenges, Chang argued, “the best way is to invest in local pilot projects. Through localized experimentation, analysis, post-construction, and post-occupancy evaluations, designers and policymakers then can identify the most efficient and effective solutions tailored to the city’s needs.” In Chang’s presentation, “Building a City-Specific landscape Management Plan,” landscape architects and local government could work hand-in-hand, developing robust and resilient urban landscapes that are biodiverse, enabling smart strategies, and allowing room for design innovation.

Wusong Riverfront Pilot Project and its continuous impacts on waterfront land and district hydrological management. / image: SWA Group

After the previous four presentations and their approaches on resiliency, Antje Stokman, Professor at HafenCity University, concluded and provided a co-creation framework for transformation. Her presentation “Re-connecting People and Nature through Transformative Research” drilled down into the topic of resilience building: it will take more than ecological, technical, and spatial solutions for urban landscapes to become resilient. She cited David Hume’s 1739 quote, “We cannot form to ourselves a just idea of the taste of pineapple, without having tasted it.” Instead, true transformation depends on the on-site and context-specific experience that brings bodily and emotional appropriation. These experiences are the foundations of transformative research, which then help us to move beyond boundaries, engaging with a particular context of reality, and creating a framework for co-design and experimental co-production of real-world projects.

“Landscape architects lead to the way toward more resilience not by designing against nature’s forces but by utilizing natural powers within designed limits by practicing the art of managing complex, living systems.” Professor Stokman added, “It is like going for a swim in cold water: it takes an effort to immerse oneself, and you need to know how to swim—and then the entry into the water offers the sensual delight of being immersed, becoming weightless, effortlessly floating.”

Through a series of examples of Co-Design, Co-Implementation, Co-Monitoring, and Co-Development, Professor Stokman illustrated how transformative research could assist from the micro-level of innovation niches, clustering networks of actors, and influencing, to the macro-level of socio-technical landscapes and real-world transformation.

Reconnecting People and Nature Through Transformative Research / image: Antje Stokman

Questions and Discussions on Resilient Landscapes

When is the best moment to engage citizens in the design process?

Grove: All moments are the best moment. Urban landscapes not only provide the functionality of public spaces, they also deliver multiple ecosystem services such as maintaining biodiversity and mitigating climate change. The broader range of understanding people have about the landscapes they engage with, there is likely to be more appreciation of and engagement with those spaces. This level of civic engagement needs to begin before the inception of the conceptual design ideas. When the public has ownership, they are more likely to embrace, celebrate, and value these landscapes.

Chang: Citizen science could be another opportunity for early involvement in participatory design. Designers usually have professionally-trained eyes for problem identification, but the ability to observe does not only belong to designers. In fact, every single day in the city, there are thousands of recordings by citizens of our urban environment, ranging from temperature measurement to bird watching. These observations and documentation can be significant assets for urban environmental monitoring, vulnerability identification, and project prioritization.

What are the biggest challenges in citizen engagement? What do cities need to look at?

Stokman: Identifying appropriate actors and stakeholders is undoubtedly a difficult task. Very often in community meetings, vocal people get more attention, but they do not necessarily represent the general population. So instead of interviewing individually, cities can look for “pioneers of changes,” which are groups of people who are already advocating for a certain type of public goods. After that, cities can enable them and connect a network of initiatives. Allocating much-needed resources to these “pioneers of changes” is an essential next step.

How to upscale and mainstream the impact of landscape solutions? Where should cities start?

Voraakhom: Before the design phase, the CU Centennial Park took two generations of advocacy in the making. It requires insight and courage to communicate and convince your own people that a new kind of green space is necessary. And in front of policymakers, often we need to assure and promote nature-based green solutions against over-engineering gray solutions. It takes persistence and perseverance to make things happen.

Stokman: The public planning process is very long. In order to keep the momentum of citizen engagement, it is critical to start from smaller pilot projects or initiatives. In this case, people can easily see, feel, inspire, and act within a reasonable time frame. After smaller prototypes are established, then the cities can build on them and move on to a bigger vision.

How can we better communicate the values that are not immediately obvious? How to be influential?

Chang: Other than methods from natural science, there are many established social sciences methods that cities can apply. For example, there are researchers measuring outdoor activity intensity in association with children’s health, open space with community surveillance that reduces crime rates, and urban food production that increases community interactions, etc. Instead of validating through dollar value, there are more creative ways to communicate benefits and prospects.

Fang: Kaohsiung’s blue and green corridor projects started from a group of people devoted to environmental protection. NGOs and community activists spread ideas among society, and then the movement gained influence to high-ranking officers. We also voted for the right delegate who can speak for people, representing the heart of the society. At the same time, from a non-human perspective, when you speak up for urban wildlife such as fish, birds, frogs, the animals in return speak up for you. The more people can read and understand the importance of the urban ecosystem that we share with wildlife, the more people will support conservation.

Panelists from left to right: Daniela Rizzi, Michael Grove, Kotch Voraakhom, Lee-Shing Fang, Antje Stokman, and Chih-Wei G.V. Chang. / image: Kotch Voraakhom

Question from Professor Nian She: There are still many aspects of green infrastructure and nature-based solutions that are uncertain, such as their life-cycle cost, maintenance, and long-term financing. What will likely be developed in the future?

Voraakhom: When we talk about green infrastructure, we are not only referring to its engineering portion but all ancillary benefits that come along with it. I think it is essential to discuss the life-cycle and financing through combined value, instead of, for example, only through stormwater fees. In addition, I believe spending time finding a localized solution pays off in longer-term. For instance, in Thailand, we shall not simply follow the Dutch sustainable model. We should find our own way that is appropriate to the land and people.

Chang: Not every municipality has a green infrastructure team, but each of them must have a landscape maintenance team. It is a great opportunity to work with their existing knowledge, then train and re-calibrate their daily work to enhance ecological functionality and beauty in the city. The high visibility of their landscape maintenance work also allows the chance for public education. Public landscape maintenance teams should be the gardeners of the cities, and stewards of green infrastructure.

Rizzi: Stewardship is indeed an important key. From my research project experience in São Paulo, we engaged people, shared ownership, and then divided the responsibilities. Instead of the city’s own management plan, in this case, it’s easier to have a de-centralized model, where smaller segments of green infrastructure are locally used and locally maintained. The smaller pilot projects are more convenient to invite engagement and stewardship for co-maintenance.

Stokman: I have had a similar experience in Lima. We proposed a purification system to treat dirty water for irrigation. At first, the city was committed to the maintenance, but after the election cycle, the plan was forgotten. Luckily since the system is small and mostly uses natural forces, the community was able to maintain the system for the time being. However, for larger-scale green infrastructure, it is indeed quite challenging to run, when the city has not yet posted the stormwater fee. We need to be creative and serious about re-allocating funding from gray infrastructure to green infrastructure. We need to convince the citizens that green infrastructure is not just something nice to have, it is something we critically need to maintain urban sustainability. New mechanisms are needed to redirect resources to the right places.

Gillian Dick, Spatial Planning Manager from Glasgow City Council, also echoed and shared her experience from Scotland: Open space strategies and their action plans need supporting cross-funding to gain access to the resources they deserve. Open spaces nowadays are not just beautiful green spaces; they shall be qualified as flood alleviation spaces, public health and recreational spaces, meeting and capacity-building spaces, education spaces, etc. By recognizing their function and benefits, the city can then mobilize and facilitate funds toward the landscape’s life-cycle cost, maintenance, and long-term running.

The Conclusion at this 10th Year Milestone

A city’s resilience is measured by how prepared it is to cope and recover from stresses and hazards while maintaining its essential functions, structures, and identity as well as adapting and thriving in the face of continual change. Building a city’s resilience requires identifying and assessing urban environmental risks, reducing vulnerability and exposure, and most importantly, increasing adaptive capacity.

Urban landscapes are the building blocks of nature-based solutions in cities. Through the lenses of landscape architects’ interventions, the panel explored the future pathways for resiliency building through urban landscapes. Regardless of the wide range of geographic and political differences in each case study, it was concluded that two directions may lead the next decade of resiliency building through innovation and inclusion:

Design Thinking with Evidence-based Policy Making: Facing new or unknown risks and vulnerabilities, landscape architects now rely more than ever on modern research, pilot projects, or even citizen science approach to make a better decision in physical intervention. These interventions then become valuable pioneers, providing feedback and evidence for improvements and adjustments. On the one hand, design thinking helps cities regain their resilience; on the other hand, smart policies integrate learning and enable further innovations.

New Paradigm of Co-Creation Process: With climate change and rapid urban economic growth, the complexities of urban problems lead to a highly integrated solution process at the local level. The goal of the urban landscape transformation is no longer a “30-year master plan.” Rather, it’s a framework that engages changes and processes. Especially on the eve of the end of 100 Resilient Cities, smaller pilot projects or initiatives take on much more vital roles. With people being a critical part of the urban ecosystem, the co-design process with multilevel stakeholders has been proven to generate a stronger solution in placemaking with long-lasting impact. Resilience-building measures need to be self-sustaining, and the landscape of resilience will more than ever depend on people and their commitment to urban environments.

To learn more about Resilient Cities Conference, the full program including presentations can be found on the Resilient Cities’ program page.

Two of the panelists will also be speaking at the 2019 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego this November:

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, ASLA

Michael Grove, ASLA

Chih-Wei G.V. Chang, ASLA, is Project Director of Gravity Praxis from the University of Cologne and a past chair of the ASLA International Practice Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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