This post is based on a class project for the fall 2019 course “Land Development Principles” at West Virginia University; it received the third place prize (course project category: landscape architecture) at the 11th Yuanye Award International Competition. The story of Pittsburgh’s Hill District and the struggles of the people living there have mostly remained untold. Through my design, I want to give them a voice and raise awareness about the existing problems of this historic African-American neighborhood.
The Hill District is one of Pittsburgh’s oldest residential neighborhoods. It is a significant African-American neighborhood in the country, famous for its contributions to music (jazz in particular), literature, and sports. During the late 1950s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh declared the historic Lower Hill blighted and cleared 95 acres of the Hill District neighborhood as part of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts. An entire neighborhood of the lower Hill District was uprooted and forced to move. The remaining Hill District is still cut off from the downtown by enormous expanses of parking lots and an old highway.
The primary goal of this project is to connect the Hill District to the surrounding areas. To align with the target of making Pittsburgh a biophilic city, an urban food forest and community parks are proposed to create a green network. The project addresses the existing problems faced by the people living in the Hill District and proposes an integrated planning and design strategy that includes housing proposals, improved transportation networks, and street design to revive this once-thriving neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Although the coronavirus pandemic is currently the most pressing public health issue in the United States, there is another health crisis that has possibly been worsened by our recent shelter-in-place actions. This crisis concerns the rising rates of loneliness and isolation in the developed world, which, even prior to the pandemic, presented a growing public health concern. As one illustration of the problem, a 2019 survey by Cigna found that 61% of respondents reported feeling lonely, representing a 7% increase over their 2018 survey.
It is concerning that rates of loneliness could be rising and are now so prevalent since there is substantial evidence showing that social isolation and loneliness are associated with an increased risk of early death. Research has shown loneliness and isolation can be as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness and isolation are especially problematic for older populations—among those most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. One study found that 27% of Americans over sixty now live alone, compared with 16% of adults in other countries.
This rising health risk has undoubtedly become more pronounced with the “social distancing” measures required to stem the spread of the virus. The term “social distancing” has rightly been criticized as a misnomer, with the phrase “physical distancing” offered as a more accurate description of the prescribed behavior. Nonetheless, the widespread adoption of the term social distancing perhaps shows how our perception of social connection is intimately tied to physical space. Zoom meetings and other digital tools might be vital for maintaining connections with others in the current climate, but they are still a poor substitute for in-person interactions.
One way to combat the rising rates of loneliness while also providing the vital sustenance of face-to-face interaction is by fostering more connections with neighbors. Such connections are one of the few available sources for meaningful in-person interaction during the lockdown. Even as restrictions on public gatherings are lifted, it could be a slow and fitful process before public spaces regain their former conviviality.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape nearly every aspect of life, from personal interactions to business to learning to recreation, ASLA will be sharing insights, observations, and impressions from ASLA members based around the country here on The Field. In recent weeks, we’ve shared updates and resources curated by the Historic Preservation and Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Networks’ leadership teams. Today, we share dispatches from the Community Design PPN team:
I am a practicing landscape architect in Omaha, Nebraska, and I have grown to love the community and the projects I have been a part of. Since my move to Omaha seven years ago, I have often questioned why there is such an absence of variety in housing options in Omaha. The options appear to be incredibly limited compared to some of the other cities I have lived in or visited. Omaha is a city within proximity of several larger metropolitan areas, and Metropolitan Omaha is nearly 1,000,000 people. So, what is the reason for the lack of diversity in homes?
Over time, I ruminated more and more over this question. The lack of housing product is not necessarily a new issue, and innumerable metropolitan areas around the world have already experienced these crossroads. The difference with many of those areas, however, is that they arrived at a conclusion many years ago. Eventually, there is always a tipping point that requires innovation to survive. Upon approaching that tipping point, the conversation evolves from how we can continue to provide housing, to how do we thoughtfully provide housing to everyone (while being respectful of our resources).
Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to assist with numerous projects and explore countless new housing concepts. Unfortunately, there are occasions where the housing concepts I’ve worked through don’t seem to get the traction I expect—even if they are proven concepts borrowed from successful projects in other municipalities. After spending time thinking over this reluctance, I began to understand that perhaps I was selling ideas that were forced or premature for the region. Until recently, there was a lack of demand for innovative housing products. Developers were profitable, and the community was content with the current supply. Recently, however, I’ve started to hear a buzz on the street. People are curious as to where the new housing products are, what is the missing-middle, and why am I living next to a corn field?
In response, I began to deliberate with some of our local development community. I sought to understand the challenges from all points of view, rather than simply focus on the designer or academic perspective. Below you’ll find pieces from one of those discussions.
ASLA’s Community Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) is the forum for landscape architecture issues in housing and community design, policy, planning, and design. This forum is dedicated to sharing information and building awareness of how landscape architects contribute to the development of livable, walkable, sustainable, and inclusive communities.
Landscape architects serve a vital role in the creation of strong, vibrant communities by placing emphasis on the importance of the public realm while fostering environmentally sustainable patterns and methods. Whether the context is rural or urban, the landscape architect is uniquely qualified to design the built environment to respond to natural processes and patterns. Our voice and experience in context sensitive design during the community planning process is key to providing the link between our colleges in planning and engineering. We have created policies to support livable communities, developed sustainable stormwater systems, designed and constructed parks and recreation areas, supported native ecosystems habitat and led public involvement processes to support sound decision-making.
In addition to a chair or co-chairs, many PPNs, including Community Design, also have larger leadership teams that include PPN officers and past chairs. Most leadership teams hold monthly calls to keep track of progress on PPN activities, and all PPN members are welcome to join their PPN’s leadership team. To learn more, see ASLA’s PPN Leadership Opportunities page.
The Community Design PPN is looking to grow its leadership team—if you are interested in becoming more active in the PPN, please contact the PPN’s Chair.
In this post, we’d like to introduce the Community Design PPN leadership team through their answers to the following questions:
What is a community design? How do you define / describe what you do?
How do you as a landscape architect add value to community design projects?
The wide gap between the diversity of American households and the housing stock available is widely acknowledged and well-documented. Given demographic trends—more households of single individuals, fewer households with children, a growing 65+ population—this disconnect will only become more dramatic if different housing types are not made more readily available.
To that end, there is a growing interest in strategies and policies that remove barriers to and incentivizes building what has come to be known as “missing middle” housing. These are house-like, multi-unit buildings planned within walking distance of retail and amenities. This kind of housing, scaled between single-family homes and apartment buildings, can provide attainable, walkable, and neighborhood-based housing options.
There is a wide gap between the diversity of American households and the housing stock, much of which is homogeneously geared toward nuclear families. Designers working in housing and community design are taking steps to address this disparity in innovative ways, from adapting older building types to make spaces more flexible to rethinking density and the scale of residences. With a changing population, an array of housing models is needed to address all residents’ needs, including those of the most vulnerable populations.
On February 7, 2018, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., hosted a talk on supportive housing solutions, featuring presentations by Rosanne Haggerty, President, Community Solutions; Debbie Burkart, National Vice President, Supportive Housing, National Equity Fund, Inc.; and Jennifer Schneider, Associate Director of Housing Development, SOME (So Others Might Eat).
The exhibition offers a snapshot of the country’s housing needs, with some statistics that community designers, leaders, and policymakers should take into account as they imagine new ways to meet evolving demands. For instance, a dramatic shift in American households has taken place since 1950—nuclear families were the leading category then, at 43% of households. That percentage has dropped to 20%, while 28% of households are single people living alone—now the largest category.
With the theme ‘It Takes a Community,’ the 2016 exhibit from the American Institute of Architects’ Center for Emerging Professionals showcases the work of architecture students, recent graduates, and emerging professionals that offer a well-rounded approach, encompassing much more than structures alone when looking at community design. The selected projects focus on community impact and engagement as well, ranging from applying adaptive design principles to address homelessness to housing that responds to resource scarcity.
The Emerging Professionals exhibit includes 30 projects, from across the country and the globe, and here we highlight a few that incorporate the surrounding landscape and well-designed outdoor spaces, from community gardens to pocket parks, as integral to the overall design.
Here are a few highlights from the responses so far:
What aspects of housing and community design interest you most?
Urban outdoor space relative to housing of different densities and types. The use of shared open space and community gathering areas to unify mixed income, mixed housing type communities.
Redesign of streetscapes, open areas & mixed use corridors in the urban core & inner ring suburbs. Re-use of historic warehouses and buildings for housing or mixed use. Infill that blends with the existing historic fabric of a neighborhood or corridor. Incorporating wildlife habitat plantings.
How to connect with clients and form ideas for designs.
Innovations that affect behavior, ecology and affordability.
With more than 300 members, the PPN should be an active, dynamic group that contributes to the PPN programs in place that allow members to connect with one another and share information—including The Field blog, Online Learning presentations, and a LinkedIn group. In the past few years, however, the activity level for the Housing and Community Design PPN has fallen and the group has lacked the guidance of an engaged PPN chair, co-chairs, or larger leadership team to create greater interest and energy for the network.
We need to hear from you about what you want to see from the PPN and how you would like to get involved. Does the group need a new name and/or a refined mission to provide a better sense of focus? How can this PPN better reflect the work you do and provide the resources you need?
Please complete this quick survey to provide us with much-needed feedback.
We look forward to hearing from you! If you have any questions concerning the Housing and Community Design PPN, let us know.
If you haven’t been paying attention, there is a bit of a housing boom happening right now. For the past few years during the real estate slump we have been hearing about something called “the new normal”. The new normal was supposed to mean smaller homes, multigenerational housing products, budget conscious buyers, abandonment of the ex-urbs. However the latest housing boom is very, well, normal. The suburbs are booming with large homes on large lots intended for single family occupancy. It appears that if buyers can get a loan, they are going big again. It is difficult to know how long this boom will continue and if it will again be met by a bust, but the question is: how can we, the designers of residential environments, better challenge the conventions of homebuilding industry this time around?
There is an enormous body of evidence to support the fact that exercise, fresh air, and contact with nature are important to one’s health and well-being. Those of us who have experienced the joys of playing in streams, hiking forest trails and collecting fireflies need no statistics to understand the benefits of spending time outdoors. Yet these experiences are foreign concepts for many people in urban neighborhoods, where green space is scarce and the world beyond their walls is riddled with real and perceived dangers.
Hypotheses are plenty when the discussion turns to urban or suburban design, the segment of landscape architecture we find ourselves engaged in. Every decade, it seems, is met with a new notion that promises to transform development patterns into utopia.
In recent years, authors and educators have identified a growing gap between urban culture and the natural processes that sustain it. The internet and other technologies provide instantaneous access to once-elusive environmental processes, eliminating the need for natural exploration.
A “street” fight has begun between proponents of New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism. New Urbanism is a movement known for promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and sustainable communities as an alternative to suburban sprawl. Landscape urbanism focuses on landscape as the organizing element for urban space. As someone who is both a new urbanist and a landscape architect, I feel the need to come to the aid of New Urbanism.