Future Perfect

Around the world, new eco-districts promise vast cities developed as sustainable green hubs for work, reflection and play
lifestyle, technology, design
Written By Lesley Conn

Imagine returning to an island home that is a marriage of high-tech and protected ecosystem: Your yacht glides through clear, turquoise water, past an expanse of protected mangroves, until it gently nudges the dock.

Once ashore, a gradual incline takes you past a first level where utilities are discreetly housed. A second tier, also hidden from view, is designated for parking, where your vehicles safely await. Only at the third level, nearly 30 feet above ground, do you find a wide, inviting green lawn and shaded plazas that connect you with your neighbors and the larger community beyond. This is the vision offered for Forest City—a planned transformation of four islands in Malaysia that within 20 years is expected to be home to more than 700,000 residents. If the concept is realized, those residents will work in financial, technology and biotech jobs within walking distance of homes embedded in tropical habitats.

Envisioned by Sasaki, a global design firm with offices in Boston and Shanghai, Forest City is the latest example of an eco-district—an urban center built on the promise of creating sustainable, ecologically beneficial cities rather than ecologically damaging ones.

Forest City isn’t an isolated effort. A confluence of factors—an expanding world economy, technology advancements and a heightened awareness that sustainable development is desired and more fiscally possible—is driving similar developments around the world. While each has its challenges and even detractors, they are developments capitalizing heavily on sustainable features such as wind and solar energy, better water management, a reduction of fossil fuels and a commitment to creating communities where work, home and recreation are more closely connected.

China describes Qianhai, a financial center near Shenzhen that will also be home to 300,000 residents, as a city designed with “ecological intelligence.” In Abu Dhabi, Masdar City is one of the most self-sustaining, energy-efficient cities in the world, complete with solar farms and electric driverless cars. Planners envision 40,000 living there and another 50,000 commuting. On a lesser scale, Germany has dedicated 20 years and more than US$8 billion toward HafenCity, a reworked industrial area near Hamburg that, as Europe’s biggest inner-city development project, is blending futuristic residences, arts centers and businesses surrounded with green public spaces.

As these new cities take shape, landscape architecture is an increasingly crucial design component. Many of the architects and designers involved are returning to old concepts defined hundreds of years ago by early practitioners of landscape architecture, chiefly Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th century visionary who designed New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace greenway, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, numerous college campuses and parks, and the acreage of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

Some new issues are being addressed with older planning techniques. At Forest City, Sasaki has taken rising sea levels into consideration, says Michael Grove, a principal landscape architect. That’s why traditional public spaces are two and three stories above ground; the lower levels will serve as flood relief areas, much like Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace provides a 1,100-acre chain of parks that can serve as temporary overflow areas in the event of flooding.

Ornamental vs. Fundamental

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New York’s Central Park.

As indication of their influence, some modern landscape architects are guiding projects so large or are driving design innovations so useful they are joining Forbes billionaires’ lists, among them China’s He Qiaonv, founder and chair of Beijing Orient Landscape; the USA’s Jack Dangermond, a Harvard-educated landscape architect and co-founder and president of Esri; and, briefly, Tu Shanzhong, chairman of China’s Pubang Landscape Architecture.

Dangermond’s firm developed ArcGIS, a worldwide geographic information system that layers maps and data, allowing businesses, governments and other interested entities to analyze specific sites, whether for regional planning or one parcel. The Esri program has more than 1 million users in 200 countries.

What Dangermond and other planning professionals are experiencing is a shift from landscape design being considered as an ornamental finishing touch to its return as a fundamental aspect of development. Known as green infrastructure, its goal is to identify and develop ways to preserve and link spaces, watersheds, wildlife and habitats. Doing so boosts biodiversity, mitigates flooding, promises higher property values and ensures access to clean air and water, proponents say.

“We are seeing a major phenomenon happen in Europe with green infrastructure,” Dangermond explains. “At the city level, the regional level and even at the national level, there are now legislative mandates in European Union law that require thinking about green infrastructure in much the same way we think about gray infrastructure, which is all the concrete for drainage and roads for transportation. They are thinking very holistically.”

Humans have an innate need to connect with the natural world, a desire known as biophilia, and modern eco-districts are developing with that in mind, Dangermond says.

“The city of Singapore is an amazing place where they have actually integrated green infrastructure and green open areas to the nth degree,” he says. “You walk around a park that happens to have buildings all through it.”

A Beautiful Time

Image By Emmanuel LATTES/Alamy Stock Photo

New York’s High Line Park.

Whether in rapidly developing nations such as Malaysia and China, sustainable-leader countries such as Germany and Abu Dhabi or smaller redevelopment efforts such as New York’s linear High Line park, landscape architecture is redefining how our global cities look and function.

“It’s kind of a beautiful moment to be a landscape architect,” says Gina Ford, principal landscape architect with Sasaki. “In some ways it feels like a return to what it was more than 150 years ago, when Olmsted was designing projects. There was a place for infrastructure and having green space. I think we are seeing a return to better land planning.”

Brent Ryan agrees this is a special time in city planning. As head of the City Design and Development Group and an associate professor of Urban Design and Public Policy at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, he follows design developments around the world.

Good landscape planning is more than determining how a building should be placed on a lot and what plants should encircle it.

“Because it’s happening in an integrated fashion and on a scale that’s never happened before, this really is opening people’s eyes to the ability of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and urban planning to improve the quality of life we have,” he says.

Done well, landscape architecture allows people to connect to the environment and with each other, says Barbara Deutsch, executive director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation. Good landscape planning is more than determining how a building should be placed on a lot and what plants should encircle it. The larger the development, the more complex the factors to consider, including annual rainfall, soil processes, even animal migration and air pollution carried from neighboring countries.

“Environment is not just ecology—it’s the view, it’s what you see and smell and hear,” Deutsch adds. “I think where there is cultural anxiety, landscape architecture is part of the solution. Research shows if you are looking at green and trees, you’re calmer, you focus better, you’re happier and less aggressive. If 80 percent of our world population is moving to cities, a core need is that those cities support us so we can be productive.”

Grove cites a Sasaki study that polled 1,000 people regarding six U.S. cities, asking what would get them to move to that location.

“It really was the most incredible finding,” Grove says. “Sixty-seven percent said their favorite thing was a specific public space and the experience of going there. I think you’re seeing across the world that cities and city leadership are beginning to understand that.”

A Walk in the Park

For the royal and the wealthy, verdant gardens that provided beauty and space for quiet relaxation have long been an option. In China, the city of Suzhou, renowned for its gardens, can trace its earliest private green spaces as far back as 500 B.C. The gardens at Versailles and Kensington Palace, still breathtaking today, date to the 1600s.

Those regal retreats, highly structured and heavily manicured, were viewed as extensions of the grand homes themselves. And while the United States didn’t have royalty, industry giants with names such as du Pont, Vanderbilt and Astor built estates and gardens often modeled after European castles.

Whether in Europe or America, the stately gardens showcased the glorious possibilities in landscaping and served as proving grounds for many of the techniques still employed in modern landscaping.

Not until the 19th century, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, and with it, a major population shift from the country into the city, did a public cry for parks begin in Europe and America. England’s Birkenhead Park holds the distinction of being Great Britain’s first municipal park, but many believe its greater contribution is how it influenced Olmsted. In 1850, a visit there showed him how vital common green spaces were to the public interest. A few years later, with his partner, British architect Calvert Vaux, Olmsted was tapped to oversee the creation of New York’s Central Park. The 843-acre jewel was America’s first landscaped park and led to Olmsted’s lifelong advocacy for conservation and public spaces.

“Olmsted was one of the first vocal proponents to advocate for bringing nature into cities so that every urban resident could interact with nature, theorizing that people who do are calmer, get more exercise and, because of the public space, are more socially interactive and become better citizens as a result,” Ryan explains. “The idea really stuck that by being exposed to nature, people’s lives would be improved, and I think we still believe that today.”

Improving on Nature

Image By Hines/CityCenterDC

The rooftops of CenterCityDC.

Olmsted did more than create ample green lawns; much like a painter, he used scale and light and layering of trees, bushes and plants to create the desired effect, whether a wide, restful pasture or rolling hillsides that showcased a variety of colorful vegetation.

Many of those techniques are evident at the Biltmore. As the current director of horticulture there, Parker Andes is often asked what makes the estate so special.

“It’s partly the house, but it’s the managed, picturesque views that give emotional context,” he says. “What Olmsted and landscape artists today are trying to do is create a feeling of excitement or rest or intrigue. There’s an emotional image they’re trying to create.”

As they design today, landscape architects have new ways to incorporate natural elements into their work, even into individual structures. Rainwater collection systems that capture and filter water are increasingly common, as are turf walls that provide insulation. Rooftops are getting new consideration, too.

“Green or not, builders today who are not using that space are giving up valuable real estate,” Deutsch says. “It’s like losing a whole floor of space.”

CenterCityDC, a 10-acre mixed-use development in Washington, D.C., transformed its roofs into space for entertaining, a dog walk area and Japanese gardens. Other developers repurposed roofs for outdoor dining and movie nights.

At Forest City, Sasaki plans to develop the world’s largest green roof system, a network of pedestrian-friendly gardens and parks, which will complement planned ground-level parks and a waterfront trail system.

From Milan, Italy, to Taipei, Taiwan, developments such as Bosco Verticale and Agora Garden are reimagining how living green trees and plants will surround residents, even when they are dozens of floors above ground.

A New Vision in Mind

With an international move toward better planning and building, perhaps it should come as no surprise that one country in particular has decided to further explore the relationship between a community’s landscape and the emotional state of its citizens.

In May 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, announced his endorsement of the Happiness Agenda by Smart Dubai. The initiative will use a science-based approach to evaluate, track and adapt city services and other aspects of city life to prioritize and improve happiness.

That will include making green, open spaces an integral part of the city.

It’s a concept that, as head of the landscape foundation, Deutsch believes could be transformative: “Can you imagine what the world would be like if we designed for happiness?”

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