1. Van Alen Council: Private Means to Public Ends (Part II)

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    An epicenter of creativity and change

    According to projections, New York City is set to increase by another 500,000 residents over the next two decades. The impacts of this growth, coupled by shrinking municipal coffers, promise to exacerbate the City’s challenges around aging infrastructure, a severe housing crisis, and income inequality. In response, New York and other global cities are looking for creative ways to leverage private money to meet the needs of their swelling populations.

    From the creation of parks and open space, to the development of entirely new neighborhoods, private interests are shaping our spatial city more than ever before. This reality underscores the importance of balancing private investment with public benefit. What best practices can guide collaboration across the public, private, and design sectors to ensure the most equitable outcomes? This question is at the core of Van Alen’s work helping cities understand what change is needed and how to make it happen.

    The Van Alen Council traveled to London in Spring 2019 to probe this question and foster learning across cities, by examining two case studies: Kings Cross and Olympic Park. Equipped with lessons on London’s approach to benefits and tradeoffs, the Council continued their exploration in New York City in Fall 2019. They focused on Brooklyn as an epicenter of creativity and change—one that Van Alen will be joining when the organization relocates to the borough’s neighborhood of Gowanus in Spring 2020.

    Over the past two decades, the Brooklyn brand has risen to global prominence, as it’s become a driving force behind the innovation economy—a set of industries related to technology, creativity, and new-age manufacturing. This growth has generated immense economic investment and opportunity, contributing to Brooklyn’s dynamism, while also raising the critical question of “who benefits?” that fuels a citywide public debate.

    The Council directed their attention to Downtown Brooklyn and Sunset Park, two neighborhoods that differ dramatically from the master-planned swaths of London that have the advantages of single, large-scale land ownership. Both case studies are hubs of the emerging innovation economy and reflect the complex conditions that underpin Brooklyn’s evolution.

    View the Council’s full itinerary.

    “A phenomenal shift”

    The central and transit-rich district of Downtown Brooklyn was historically a lively commercial and civic center. Through decades of decline, it was underutilized and seen as prime for revitalization. The City rezoned the area in 2004 with the vision of creating a new, 21st century Central Business District (CBD) that would service the growing borough and greater metropolitan region.

    The surge of investment that followed, successfully stimulated development and generated job growth, making it the city’s third largest CBD. The unplanned proliferation of residential alongside commercial, however, put tremendous pressure on its existing infrastructure. As a relatively new district, Downtown Brooklyn is now finding its footing in balancing future growth with the needs of its new 24-hour, mixed-use community.

    To ground the Council’s work in history, Deborah Schwartz, President of the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), gave the group an overview of the borough’s development—noting that Brooklyn’s physical boundaries have changed over time. “Had you been in this very space in the 18th century you would have been in the water,” she said, speaking from BHS’s space in the waterfront neighborhood of Dumbo. “A huge part of New York’s and Brooklyn’s history is about landfill. It’s really important that people understand the evolution of how this city grows and changes.” She added that it’s not just development that’s affecting the coastal boundaries of the borough: “Because of the realities of rising waters, the politics of global warming are a huge part of what’s informing how people build things here.”

    At the Dumbo offices of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Winston von Engel, Director of the Department of City Planning’s Brooklyn office, gave the group an overview of New York City’s complex planning and zoning processes, which are starkly different from the master planning approach taken in many of the countries that Council members hail from. He put this in context of New York’s steady rise in population and the subsequent pressure for increased housing and density. “We got to a point in the mid-2000s where we had to ask: Where are these people going to live if we’re not growing upward or outward?”

    He explained that the city developed PlaNYC (since updated to the strategic plan OneNYC), a more comprehensive vision for growth that anticipated a population of nine million people by 2030. The transit system was a key factor in PlaNYC, as the City identified neighborhoods with enough transportation access to support growth. Sitting at the intersection of 13 subway lines and with quick access to Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn was an obvious focus for new development, especially following its rezoning in the early 2000s.

    In contrast to London or other similar European cities, development in New York does not happen by way of a citywide master plan, a fact that some Council members found bewildering at times. Von Engel acknowledged the difficulty that comes with the complex web of planning in New York, which involves the collaboration of several city agencies and the input of community boards—appointed citizen advisory groups that often have an adversarial relationship with private developers. Increasing density requires “working through and with communities in partnership to come up with plans and visions for their future,” said von Engel. That process of partnership can be met with “somewhat mixed success in terms of the communities’ reception to more people moving in. People want good things, but they may not want things to change.”

    On a walk from BIG’s offices to the Downtown Brooklyn core, the Council heard from Regina Myer, President of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a non-profit development organization that describes itself as “the local champions for Downtown Brooklyn.” As the group moved from the cobblestone streets of Dumbo to the unmissable cluster of new high-rise buildings in Downtown Brooklyn, Myer put the amount of growth into stark relief. After 15 years of growth since the neighborhood’s rezoning, “There’s been over ten billion dollars’ worth and over 26 million square feet of development, mostly in apartments,” she said. “We are now projecting 50,000 residents in Downtown Brooklyn. We had less than a thousand 15 years ago. This is a phenomenal shift.”

    She acknowledged that there have been surprises along the way—namely, that the development has been far more residential than originally envisioned. “We had a great expectation that many of them would have offices located in the buildings and that was a miscalculation of the market.” The upside, as she sees it, is that Downtown Brooklyn has a multipurpose texture that doesn’t feel like a cluster of offices. “What we’re so excited about is the mix of uses between school, office, and residential. And for the first time Downtown Brooklyn has hotels. There literally was no hotel use in Downtown Brooklyn until about 15 years ago, and now this is a place where many people come to stay when they’re visiting New York City.”

    Looking ahead to the next phase of growth, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership has engaged BIG and architecture firm WXY to imagine a system that will better knit together the neighborhood amidst this massive change and bring a more pedestrian-friendly feeling to the streets. Although their plan is still under development, Kate Cella, Senior Landscape Architect at BIG, shared that the complex intersection of streets and multiple forms of transportation will be addressed. “These multiple grids from different neighborhoods all converge in Downtown Brooklyn and that can disorient you,” she acknowledged. “There’s a lot of congestion and multimodal complexes since it’s a major thoroughfare for subway, buses, cars, pedestrians, cyclists, for everyone.” In response, their plan will prioritize pedestrians, buses, and bike lanes, and propose an increase in public seating areas and greenery.

    During the tour and at a roundtable discussion held in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s historic Harvey Theater, Council members probed further into New York’s complicated city planning process and questioned how the public’s interest could be honored without an officially appointed entity—like a city architect—dedicated to preserving the city’s character and interests of its residents.

    “You need a singular entity that’s always acting in the public interest to catalyze urban change on a big scale,” observed Daniel Elsea, International Council Co-chair and director at UK-based urban planning firm Allies & Morrison. “[In New York] there isn’t a single entity that can negotiate all those issues into one. There’s a lot of fragmentation.”

    Council member Morten Schmidt, founding partner of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, added that this fragmentation can put the unique architectural character of a neighborhood at risk. “The materiality of Brooklyn’s historical buildings is beautiful, rendered in brick and brownstone. But when you look around, these new buildings are just glass and aluminum. They don’t have that materiality. They are like all the other buildings you find across North America, China, Australia—all over. If you were dropped here, you wouldn’t be able to tell where you are.”

    Because many of Downtown Brooklyn’s new high-rises are largely market rate and luxury housing, the Council also discussed how this growth would affect long-term stability in New York. They observed how similar growth has happened in other global centers such as London and Paris, resulting in an increasingly expensive urban core with lower income residents being pushed toward the edges of the city. “You either pay people enough money to compete in the housing market, or you subsidize the production of housing,” a Council member asserted during the discussion. “And if you don’t do either of those things, which we don’t, then you’re going to end up with a housing crisis.”

    “It’s about whose vision is starting the conversation”

    The challenge of maintaining New York City’s competitive edge, while ensuring equitable development is also playing out in the South Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. This long standing immigrant neighborhood is closely linked to the history of manufacturing along its wateront, which provided jobs to much of the upland community.

    As the post-industrial shoreline has undergone a renaissance, commercial pressures in Sunset Park have intensified in recent years. Industry City is a privately-owned campus and anchor tenant of the evolving waterfront that has come to represent the new-age innovation economy accused of supplanting traditional manufacturing and spurring wider neighborhood change. This 19th-century complex of warehouses that spans 35-acre has been transformed into a hub for light manufacturing, commerce, and special events.

    In the face of a rezoning request by Industry City to introduce hotel and big-box retail to the complex, a fiery debate has unfolded about whether to resist the request outright or leverage private development in order to achieve community benefits.

    The Council started the day with a tour of upland Sunset Park, the residential area that grew out of the nearby waterfront industry and has long been home to New York’s many waves of immigrant families. Melissa Del Valle Ortiz, Community & Housing Coordinator for Congresswoman Nydia M. Velazquez, pointed out a new mixed-use building that had replaced a residential brownstone, and shared that even small-scale change in character like this can cause community tension in a lower income neighborhood facing rising housing costs.

    Later in the day, the Council engaged in a lively discussion with New York City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, whose district includes Sunset Park and has been a central figure in the debate around Industry City’s proposed rezoning. Much of the conversation centered around the challenging, often adversarial relationship between communities and private developers. “The community often gets blinded by the power, resources, and time that developers have,” said Menchaca. “Starting with ‘no’ sends a clear message that the burden is on the developer to get to ‘yes.’ It doesn’t feel good as a developer and maybe that’s the point.”

    Renae Widdison, District 38’s Director of Land Use and Planning, added, “It’s about whose vision is starting the conversation. Especially in communities where people are housing insecure and feel constantly excluded from government and everything else, the conversation has to start somewhere different.” She posed a scenario in which private developers approach community members with an open question about what they need and where their mutual benefits intersect. “That’s really different than a developer coming with a very baked plan with fancy renderings and very expensive lawyers, planners, and designers, saying ‘I think that this would be excellent for you.’”

    Both Menchaca and Widdison echoed the Council’s concerns about the lack of a larger master plan for development in New York. “We are in a status quo that is void of a comprehensive plan.” said Menchaca. “These piecemeal strategies just don’t work.”

    Mulling over the conversation, Carmen Pereira, Associate Partner at international design practice Mecanoo, compared her learnings to her experience in the Netherlands. “Designing a process that adequately can bring all these different ideas, voices, and objectives together is a much bigger thing. It goes to the heart of people’s views of the democratic process and the idea of the individual versus the collective. What I see here in the U.S. or in New York is that the idea of the individual is a very powerful thing, but the idea of the collective is somewhat diminished.”

    She continued, “There’s no perfect system. But [in the Netherlands] things are considered in a much larger totality. There’s definitely a lot of possibility for engagement in that process. The collective is considered more important than the individual.”

    Monica von Schmalensee, International Council Co-chair and CEO of Swedish firm White Arkitekter, also considered the delicate balance between growth and community needs. “How do you create social value and economic value, but also a long-term vision?” she pondered. “These discussions about how cities evolve—whether through planning, negotiation, or just that big deal—have been an eye-opener. How can architects and planners help those processes go forward while really helping local communities? The field needs to put these questions higher up on the agenda.”

    “It’s good to come back down to earth”

    Concurrently with the Council’s trip to Brooklyn, Van Alen hosted a 2019 Regional Session of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD). During this session, civic leaders from small U.S. cities and group of global design professionals convened to discuss approaches to city-making at all scales.

    As a special capstone to the week, Van Alen brought together some of the participating mayors with the Council for an ideas exchange. The day before, the Council gathered at the Center for Architecture for a fast-paced design charrette addressing specific challenges in each mayor’s home city: Maricopa, AZ; Capitol Heights, MD; Union City, GA; and West Hollywood, CA. The ideas were then presented to the mayors—not as formal recommendations, but as a starting point for conversations between leaders in citymaking and design.

    Shawn Maldon, Mayor of Capitol Heights, MD, expressed his hope to find ways to improve public health and encourage more community engagement in his city’s downtown revitalization process. He was excited to see the Council’s proposal to convert a large portion of the city’s downtown into a public park, and imagined that a new vision of a park could really engage citizens in the planning process. “We as mayors have these big visions of how we’d like to see things happen,” he reflected. “But sometimes it’s good to come back down to earth and have some real hands on kind of help to make it happen.”

    Christian Price, Mayor of Maricopa, GA, brought several challenges to the table. As a city that’s skyrocketed from a population of 1,200 to 54,000 since 2000, he’s faced with finding developers willing to create new amenities from the ground up, while also finding ways to enable more outdoor activity in Arizona’s hot climate. The Council took a long term view for this challenge and recommended investing in public park space, which would provide shady green areas, create a more intentionally-planned sense of place, and serve as appealing new assets for potential developers.

    Following the presentation, Mayor Price expressed a new appreciation for design thinking and an eagerness to bring his learnings back to his city. “I’ve been educated, now how do I educate?” he asked. “We need to create a fire and that fire’s going to come by educating my city manager, my upper echelon of city staff. Having a design team that we can pull locally into that philosophy might be really interesting.”

    Deborah Marton, Van Alen’s executive director, echoed this sentiment in her closing remarks to the mayors. “There’s extraordinary generosity among designers. Designers want to put their minds to real world problems. If you find people in your local communities who think the way you do, they will raise their hands and help build the cities that you want to see for the long term.”

    “We need to take some big leaps”

    While the trip provided the International Council with a bevy of answers about the ins and outs of Brooklyn’s development, Council members often found themselves wrestling with questions at the highest level, especially around the intersection of social and environmental issues. “We started our conversation around equity and quality of life, but somewhat vaguely,” said Monica von Schmalensee. “But over time, we’ve been able to dig more into the big questions ahead of us. How do cities grow, and for whom? And what does it mean to make cities more equitable?”

    “It’s important that we bring more of the climate discussion into social discussions,” added Carl Backstrand, Partner & Vice President, White Arkitekter. “We really need to address them together in order to shape the future.”

    Other participants found inspiration in the potential for private-public collaborations, but reinforced the need for more cross-city dialogue, interdisciplinary learning, and inclusive conversations about the future of urban design. “I had a very different understanding of private developers roles in cities,” one Council member noted. “I was leaning more towards the negative side of things. One of my takeaways is actually under the right circumstances, [private development] can be used to generate positive things for cities and placemaking—in partnership with governance and other voices.”

    “There’s still a lot of work to be done in bridging the gap between the [design] industry and city governance,” observed Lucie Murray, Programme Director of New London Architecture, the International Council’s partner organization during their London expedition. “There’s so much talent to pull upon, but we need to get the right people in the room to have a conversation about the solutions—and to have the confidence to take some big leaps.”


    Daniel Elsea

    Director, Allies and Morrison

  2. Van Alen Council: Private Means to Public Ends (Part I)

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    As global cities look for creative ways to keep pace with unprecedented growth, they are increasingly turning to private development to deliver on a host of public assets, from housing and open space to full-scale neighborhood regeneration.

    In New York City, recent contention around the opening of Hudson Yards thrust the topic of private sector investment in city-making to the forefront of public debate. The new $25 billion development—the largest private real estate project in the country—attracted both acclaim and criticism. Some hail the complex of restaurants, shopping mall, offices and apartments as New York’s greatest new neighborhood and a wellspring of new tax revenue for the city. Its critics have labelled the project a soulless playground for visitors and the wealthy that offers nothing for the majority of New Yorkers.

    So how do we reconcile this trend towards privatization with the goal of fostering inclusive growth in cities? What are the ways that the public, private, and design sectors can work together more effectively to ensure that the outcomes are areas of the city that serve the diverse needs of urban residents?

    To furnish lessons for the future, the Van Alen International Council looked to London as a city in which private money has long had a significant role in shaping the city. London’s Great Estates, established largely in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, remain in private ownership today and, through their stewardship, continue to strongly influence the capital’s streetscape.

    The Council’s exploration of the private sector role’s in city-making, focused on two developments that are essentially modern iterations of the Great Estates: King’s Cross and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. While each is singular in its history, context and design, both regeneration projects aimed to spur private investment in underutilized land to create new, economically viable pieces of city that would cater to a diverse urban populace.

    To fully understand the historical precedents to these projects, the Council first visited the Bedford Estate, a 350-year-old Great Estate, to gain insight into the strategies around investment, placemaking, regeneration, and management that allow for long-term, large-scale private landowners to shape and re-shape areas over time. They then moved onto Somers Town, a historically lower-working class and ethnically diverse population that has undergone significant change in large part due to the regeneration of neighboring King’s Cross. The next day brought them to University College London’s Bartlett Real Estate Institute and the East London areas of Hackney Wick, Fish Island and Sugarhouse Island, which are adjacent to the Olympic Park and within the area of regeneration.

    Other activities included a site visit to Heatherwick Studios, the firm behind Google’s new offices being built in King’s Cross, and presentations from Urbik founder Lee Mallett and UCL anthropologist Nitasha Kapoor on King’s Cross, and Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at LSE and director of the Urban Age and LSE Cities Burdett.

    London’s evolution

    Professor Burdett outlined the economic, political and social forces that have influenced London’s evolution, drawing comparisons to its purported North American counterpart of New York. London is a low-density, green city with the capacity for intensification. It is encircled by the green belt, an area of countryside designed to prevent urban sprawl. This marked perimeter also enables the city to be developed in a complex and intense way.

    New York has five boroughs and the decision-making lies with the state; London has 32 boroughs, plus the City of London, and the Mayor of London holds most of the power. He is chair of Transport for London, responsible for inward investment and housing, and in charge of the London Plan, the statutory strategy that sets out an economic, environmental, transport and social framework for development.

    While New York has as-of-right development, London planning is much more prescriptive. Private development, such as King’s Cross, operates within a regulatory framework that may appear restrictive but provides a clear roadmap for projects across the public and private sectors.

    The current objective is to increase density in the City of London, hence the proliferation of taller buildings, and to regenerate London’s outer boroughs by providing better services. Some of this public sector work is subsidized by private developers, such as the extension of London Underground’s Northern Line in Battersea.

    Case study: King’s Cross

    King’s Cross is a mixed-use urban regeneration project in north London that includes retail, commercial, housing and education. It is located on a 67-acre site of former rail and industrial facilities, bordered by the housing estates that served as homes for the industrial workforce and a protective barrier between wealthy classes and the noxious site. The redevelopment has created a destination in an area that many Londoners previously avoided and it has opened up what was once private land for public use. It encompasses a mix of restored historic buildings, new construction, and interspersed public amenities and spaces. Having opened in 2011, the redevelopment is due to be fully completed by 2020.

    Several plans for redevelopment came and went until 2008, when the private developer Argent formed a joined venture with London & Continental Railways and DHL – the King’s Cross Central Ltd Partnership – to become the single landowner. In 2015, the UK government and DHL sold their interests to Australian Super, Australia’s biggest pension fund.

    During a tour of the area, Bob Allies of Allies and Morrison, the site’s master planner, said the aim was to create simple urban streets. Although the planners were not keen, Allies and Morrison maintained tight spaces between buildings to produce an atmosphere that is lacking from some of the other new London developments. While it was important that each of the new buildings had an urban identity, Allies and Morrison did not issue architects with prescriptive design guidelines, and instead placed the emphasis on what each building contributed to the new district as a whole.

    To serve the residential community, a new primary school and, King’s Cross Academy, a school for deaf children, were built in the heart of the development and are co-located on two floors of 14-story residential building. To sustain their operation, The King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership formed a trust to sponsor the academy.

    For public uses, Granary Square constitutes the heart of King’s Cross, its large open space bordered by a restored granary building and Regent’s Canal. The granary building houses the University of Arts London (UAL) and the public/private spaces within the building mirror the nature of the larger development. UAL was intentionally made the first tenant at King’s Cross and the 4,000 students and 1,000 staff enhanced the area’s vibrancy from the project’s inception.

    Other public amenities include a public swimming pool, library and gym. The local authority, Camden Borough Council, also found new offices within the King’s Cross development.

    Adjacent to the popular Granary Square is the newly-opened retail core of King’s Cross, Coal Drops Yard, designed by Heatherwick Studios. New, curving roofs converging at a narrow end have enhanced the relationship between the original coal buildings, but at ground level, the distance between the two sides has been critiqued as unsettlingly wide. The aim was that Coal Drops Yard would feature independent shops, and yet it is home largely to high-end designers with expensive wares, available only to a certain economic echelon.

    So does the regeneration deliver benefits for local people?

    According to Lee Mallet of consultancy Urbik, Argent’s approach from the outset has been fundamental to King’s Cross’s success. Rather than reach for pencil and paper immediately, the developer explored the principles that should drive the urban approach and the architecture. The resulting 10 principles drove the development.

    Another key strategy in the area’s regeneration was placing education facilities at its very core, which helped to enliven the area and bring in a new set of users. This in turn drove up the value of the surrounding mixed-use development, a model that was adopted in the case of Olympic Park as well.

    University College London anthropologist Nitasha Kapoor, who undertook an anthropological study of King’s Cross for The Developer magazine, noted that the idea of King’s Cross being a destination raised the question of what was happening on its periphery. As the Council made its way through the district, she pointed out the stark contrast between the safe, quiet, and insular enclosure of the development and the windy, noisy, and in some sense, forgotten environment on the perimeter just 50 yards away. This is the original neighborhood, and the second most deprived ward in the Borough of Islington, with a typical London parade of shops—a café, launderette, convenience store, and kebab shop. During construction of the eight-story residential block that marks King Cross’s eastern perimeter, these local businesses benefited from the development; now that it is completed, it creates a high and long barrier between the two areas, leaving the original community spatially isolated. Some UAL students complain they cannot afford to buy anything on the King’s Cross site, even though these local shops, just a few minutes’ walk away, provide affordable goods. Despite being part of everyday life for people who live to the east of the development, these shops are still relatively inaccessible from within King’s Cross.

    The signage at King’s Cross was prominent but it all pointed into the new complex, and the existing community had suffered from the development’s inward-looking stance.

    The local authority could address this separation, said Kapoor, by encouraging spaces that people from all socioeconomic groups use.

    Case study: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Party

    When London bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, at the heart of its case was the ambitious promise of a lasting “legacy” of investment and regeneration of one of the city’s most impoverished areas. London was adamant it would not repeat the failures of other Games, which have created large and expensive white elephants, but would instead develop its Olympic grounds in a way that it could be adapted into a functioning, sustainable part of London. The goal was to transform a post-industrial landscape into a thriving area, while preserving local heritage.

    The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, as it’s now known, was built on a former industrial brownfield site in East London’s city fringe and straddles four boroughs. The land was bought by the public sector and the 278 businesses and three traveller sites established in the area were relocated or compensated.

    Following the Games, the area was handed over to the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), a mayoral development corporation accountable to the Mayor and responsible for delivering the physical legacy through long-term planning, development, management and maintenance of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and its surrounding area. In this sense, the LLDC functions as planning and regeneration agency not only for the park, but also the neighboring districts of Hackney Wick, Fish Island, Bromley-by-Bow, Sugarhouse Island, Carpenters Estate and Westfield Stratford City.

    Eleanor Fawcett, Design for London’s former head of design for Olympic legacy and LLDC’s former head of design and physical regeneration, explained that London’s Great Estates, with their sense of long-term stewardship, served as a model for the Olympic Park.

    The regeneration was spurring the creation of an entirely new district, so the LLDC developed two strategies for knitting the park into the surrounding area. First, a new 26-mile green spine opened access to waterways, including the River Lea and the Thames. Next, it was recognized that four town centers—Stratford, Leyton, Hackney Wick, and Bromley-by-Bow—needed new faces looking into the park.

    In planning the park, the City focused on five tactics for ensuring that the outcomes would yield positive results for the new and existing communities:

    1. Value people, places and activities that are there
    Rather than create a generic city, the design team wanted to retain the special qualities of the Lea Valley. It is an area with an openness and a sense of people being able to claim their territory.

    2. Planning with plans
    Working with the four boroughs, the team established key proposals that became the roadmap for the development. There was a strong emphasis on connectivity with the existing community, because unless it was explicitly drawn, it was unlikely that private developers would incorporate these essential points of connection.

    3. Parks, bridges, stations, streets and public places in the right place at the right time
    The existing infrastructure provided poor access, so there was emphasis on rebuilding and improving the stations. The 26-mile connection from the Lea Valley to the Thames also connected six new parks with a continuous route and created a regional resource.

    4. Reinventing the town centers
    The new town centers for Stratford, Leyton and Hackney Wick were planned by the city and adopted by the landowners, but the approach did not work for Bromley-by-Bow. The project was finally unlocked when all five landowners developed a joint master plan.

    5. Get on with it and make real things happen
    It was feared that the extensive planning would adversely affect the project by protracting its completion. All the public sector organizations worked together to deliver a series of projects under the Olympic Fringe Programme. With a £100 million purse and, again, a focus on connectivity, the program provided amenities for local communities, such as sports facilities on Hackney Marshes; working with businesses in Leyton to prepare them for the Olympic Games and create a sense of pride and local identity; and the canal-side White Building, which offers space to local artists.

    From the outset, the legacy promise was a thread that ran through the planning of the Olympic Park. The permanent sports venues and parklands are clustered in the center of the space while new developments, such as schools, are on the edges to connect outwards to existing communities.

    The former broadcast and press buildings, which sit adjacent to the neighborhood of Hackney Wick, home to the largest concentration of creatives in Europe, is now a digital and start-up hub operated by University College London called Here East. In the center of the park is East Bank, a culture and education center that will house new, expanded venues for Sadler’s Wells, the V&A and the BBC, and campuses for UCL and the London College of Fashion. At the edges of the park, five new neighborhoods are being built by private companies, providing 10,000 homes, 50% of which are affordable housing. Many of the new homes have three bedrooms or more, to encourage families to settle and create communities.

    The residents in the new neighborhoods pay an annual fee and once all the housing is complete, the receipts will fund maintenance of the park in perpetuity, alleviating the need for public finance.

    Council reactions and lessons for the future

    On the third and final day, the International Council convened with Van Alen programming partner New London Architecture for a workshop facilitated by Paul Finch of Architectural Record. Joined by a range of key London players from across the public, private, and design sectors, the Council drew upon the learnings and observations of the previous two days with the goal of deriving best practices to help inform the next generation of private development in London and beyond.

    The Council members found much to praise, as well as room for considerable improvement. They presented their ideas to a panel of experts including Daniel Moylan, Urban Design London co-chairman, former deputy chairman of Transport for London, and former chairman of the LLDC; Peter Bishop, Professor of Urban Design at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture and local authority planning director for King’s Cross; and Alison Brooks, principal and creative director at Alison Brooks Architects, which designed a residential scheme at King’s Cross.

    Team One

    Carl Bäckstrand | Partner & Vice President, White Arkitekter (Co-Chair)
    Niklas Carlen | Office Manager Stockholm, Wingardhs
    Karen Frome | Founding Partner, Rise Projects
    Alan Maskinz | Principal / Owner Olson Kundig Architects
    Erika Escalante | Director of Interiors & Comms, Studio Saxe
    Daniel Maldonado | Senior Vice President, Skanska (Board Member)

    Lara Kinneir | Director, New London Architecture
    Tim Rettler | Principal Project Manager Regeneration, Greater London Authority

    Team One’s central critique was the fact that both projects lacked connection with the surrounding neighborhoods, emphasized by physical boundaries: At King’s Cross, a large building separates the development from the existing neighborhood, while on the Olympic Park, a canal divides the park from Hackney Wick and Fish Island to the east. Citing the role of community boards in the US, they suggested it might be the role of government to ensure boundaries were more flexible and designs more inclusive.

    They also noted a generic quality to the development, part of a global trend of place without placement. To encourage developers to opt for more than a standard design, they suggested the industry needed to quantify design value.

    The group also felt that the impacts of climate change were not sufficiently addressed at either site.

    The group came up with 10 considerations to inform future development:

    1. The human scale: What building heights are people comfortable walking through?
    2. Signage: Provide information about where you are and where you’re going
    3. Location: Where is the nearest grocery store?
    4. Interdisciplinary approach
    5. Early community involvement: Consult people who have already done work in the area, such as anthropologists
    6. Design value and design leadership
    7. Material selection based on circular economy
    8. Location specific design: Use materials appropriate for the area and the climate
    9. Co-living/co-working/co-playing: How is that mixed into the development?
    10. Ecosystem service

    In response, Peter Bishop noted that he did not recognize the group’s view of King’s Cross. The site had difficult physical barriers, such as high-speed rail and many tunnels, which were insurmountable. From the outset, he said, the government’s aim was to produce a scheme that addressed the social disadvantage of the surrounding area and was inclusive in its approach. The location of amenities, such as the school and swimming pool, was vital to attracting people into the development.

    The plan was based on a traditional London typology that dated back to the Great Estates and, apart from two housing blocks, no building exceeded 12 stories. Allies and Morrison’s flexible master plan allowed individual buildings to be replaced over time.

    Bishop said King’s Cross tried to balance the need for a private developer to make a return on investment by embedding strong social benefits in the development.

    Alison Brooks highlighted the fact that many developments lacked the nuances of good places because developers did not want the complexity of building and managing schools or swimming pools, but that King’s Cross had managed to achieve this.

    Daniel Moylan posed a series of questions for architects. Any large-scale industrial site would have barriers, so what’s the solution? Drawn up more than 10 years ago, the King’s Cross and Olympic Park master plans don’t take account of climate change —are master planning and the planning system too inflexible to respond to today’s issues? The challenge for architects, he said, was to refresh the master plan and planning permission.


    Nick Taylor | Director, Squint/Opera
    Katrin Binder | Project Manager, Henning Larsen
    Jonas Edblad | Office Manager Göteborg, Wingardhs
    Monica von Schmalensee | CEO, White Arkitekter (Co-Chair)
    Denzil Gallagher | Partner, BuroHappold Engineering
    Nat Oppenheimer | Senior Principal, Silman
    Susanna Sirefman | Founder and President, Dovetail Design Strategists
    Carla Swickerath | Partner, Studio Libeskind

    Jonathan Leah | Principal and Sector Leader for Education in Europe, Woods Bagot
    Sowmya Parthasarathy | Urban Design Leader, Integrated City Planning, Arup

    Team Two analyzed the two projects against five dominant themes.

    1. Center vs. edges
    The group found that some edges of King’s Cross and the Olympic Park were potentially hostile because the developments had not considered the link between the old and the new and the heart had been developed at the expense of the perimeters. At King’s Cross, in particular, all signage pointed inwards, directing people away from the older neighborhoods and their amenities.

    The group recommended focusing harder on the perimeter and respecting the larger community. Planning regulation may be needed to encourage this.

    2. Mix it up
    King’s Cross was successful in mixing the old and the new, but the group found a lack of demographic diversity at the Olympic Park. They recommended flexibility in the master plan to allow a rich programmatic mix and for developers and architects to consider how to encourage a greater social mix and a better live/work mix.

    3. Nature vs. nurture
    In the Olympic Park, in particular, there were areas that felt bereft of energy while others were over energetic. This could be mitigated through a better balance of the planned and the unplanned, encouraging people into the park rather than presenting a perfectly programmed space.

    The group recommended flexible planning and collaboration throughout the life of the development rather than just at the beginning. This could take the form of community governance, which would provide a richer and more collaborative approach.

    4. Macro vs. micro
    The group recognized the importance of architects and developers looking beyond the red line to how the site linked with the surrounding area. While there are limits to what individual architects can do outside the red line, the industry as a whole can exert influence on governments to ensure better connections between neighborhoods.

    To avoid large developments being sterile, a rich mix of partnerships is required, not just in the project team but with communities.

    5. Human and planetary health
    Architects and developers must think about working differently to ensure human and planetary health. Sustainability is now a given but it needed to be addressed at the start of a project and the UN Sustainable Development Goals could be used as the framework.

    In response, Alison Brooks said the divide between living and working was out of date. Even housing as housing was obsolete, as every home was a potential business as more people worked from home or created start-ups in their living rooms. Foyers could become co-working and meeting spaces, with the added benefit of introducing activity and diversity to the streetscape. The property industry did not recognize the trend, however, because it created complexity.

    Daniel Moylan said it was not planning, but a building’s adaptability that enabled mixed use. He questioned whether some large sites with their single-use big blocks had the flexibility to be adapted.

    Peter Bishop advocated that it was planning’s role to engage developers and architects in a contextual debate. Planning needed to think propositionally and force a debate so developers thought more about the context and not just the red line.


    Gabriela Frank | Director of Business Development and Marketing, Olson Kundig Architects
    Jan Bunge | Managing Director, Squint Opera
    Daniel Elsea | Director and Head of Communications, Allies and Morrison (Co-Chair)
    Mark Johnson | President, Civitas (Board Member and Climate Council Co-Chair)

    Paul Karakusevic | Partner, Karakusevic Carson Architects
    Gerard Maccreanor | Founding Director, Maccreanor Lavington Architects
    Manisha Patel | Senior Partner, PRP
    Dr. Bridget Snaith | Senior Lecturer landscape architecture, University of East London
    Tomas Stokke | Director, Haptic Architects

    Team Three’s first focus was on finance. Long-term ownership achieves long-term benefit and in the case of King’s Cross, the private investment with its patient money and patient intention has produced a high level of benefit.

    In contrast, the public investment in the Olympic Park was hot money as it had to be spent in a short period of time to deliver the Games venues and the LLDC was now having to ‘backfill’ to create a long-term benefit.

    The two sites were typical of brownfield industrial areas: interstitial spaces that were voids in a city, but also highly connected because of their industrial past. The Olympic Park was regionally connected but locally disconnected. The group identified the River Lea—the reason the Olympic Park was originally developed as an industrial zone—as the means to restoring connectivity.

    The short time scale to deliver the Olympics and the development meant the park lacked the fine grain of an evolving city, but the gap between the east and the west was starting to ease and the East Bank culture and education sector would bring further change.

    King’s Cross was smaller parcels of land in a void and active part of London with a rich industrial heritage. It was, the group found, simply good real estate. This project involved stitching pieces together rather than building big infrastructure and the creation of a strong public realm made it resilient and adaptable.

    In terms of inclusivity, health, well-being, and affordability, neither project was perfect. The Olympic Park and some surrounding areas were socially inclusive with good public amenities. South Park catered for multi-generations, while the housing in Chobham Manor and Sugarhouse Island was targeting the middle class. In the west, however, the group felt Hackney Wick was disconnected from the park and the fine grain of Fish Island had been missed as it was trying to be brought into the Olympic Park.

    In contrast, King’s Cross had a rich character with exemplary public spaces and an interesting mix of uses. They noted that it would be hard to think of another urban development where the Aga Khan and Google were neighbors.

    Critical to both projects was that they were places made for Londoners and they seemed to support Londoners. This contrasted with New York’s High Line and Hudson Yards, which were built for visitors.

    Daniel Moylan said the housing development appealing to the middle class was a deliberate decision by the then-mayor of Newham. Most of the park lies in the Borough of Newham, dominated by social housing, so the mayor wanted to attract middle class people to the area.

    In terms of finance, Peter Bishop highlighted the difference between the private scheme of King’s Cross, which held its nerve, and the public sector Olympic Park, which bottled it. King’s Cross was a quasi-public/private client that engaged a developer as a partner while the public sector mediated and represented the public good. In contrast, at the Olympic Park, the public sector drew up a master plan without having its finger on the pulse of the market.


    Alfredo Caraballo | Partner, Allies and Morrison (Co-Chair)
    Kevin Kudo-King | Principal / Owner, Olson Kundig Architects
    Benjamin Garcia Saxe | Executive Director, Studio Saxe
    Jared Della Vale | CEO & Founder, Alloy Development

    Madeleine Kessler | Associate Architect, Haptic Architects
    Craig Miller | Partner, Heatherwick
    Alen Penn | Professor in Architectural and Urban Computing, Dean of Faculty, The Bartlett

    Team Four considered governance, time, value, and people.

    In terms of governance, the private sector, public sector and community needed to work together to create the sense of place. The problem with public sector decisions was time, as they could be casualties of the five-year political cycle; whereas the private sector’s long-term vision for King’s Cross was part of the project’s success.

    Like Team One, Team Four identified the need to measure value beyond purely the financial.

    One of those intangibles was people and diversity. As it was hard to put a value number on diversity, the group felt there might be a role for regulation and planning to achieve a greater mix in communities. Historically, London was most successful where it had mixed communities; developments aimed at particular groups or financially attractive markets were creating challenges for the future.

    Daniel Moylan believed both projects were backed by positive investors. At the Olympic Park, Here East was on a 99-year lease and the investment arm of Qatar’s ruling family now owned East Village, the former athletes’ village. Likewise, King’s Cross had very patient capital behind it.

    Overall, while Council members had some reservations about the two projects, they recognized that both King’s Cross and the Olympic Park were still relative newborns and that, as with London’s centuries-old Great Estates, time would add maturity, layers and granularity.


    Daniel Elsea

    Director, Allies and Morrison

  3. Van Alen Council: Future of Food Systems

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    With bustling waterfronts, famous seafood markets, a robust culinary scene, and an estuary rich with marine life, the Puget Sound region seems to be the picture of seafood security. But look closer at the web of people, the sea, and the climate, and the fragility and vulnerability of this system comes to light.

    Over a three-day trip, from July 17-19, 2019, Van Alen Climate Council members visited this region to explore the seafood supply chain from ocean to table. The Seattle trip comes on the heels of the Council’s first installment of “Designing the Future of Food” in California’s Central Valley, where they saw firsthand the complex interplay of structural, social, and environmental issues that underpin the agricultural system. In Seattle, the Council shifted their focus from land-based agricultural systems to engage in a systems assessment of the seafood supply chain.

    Through site visits and cross-disciplinary conversation, the group came to understand the intimate relationship between food security and climate change in the Puget Sound. Visits led the Council backwards, from the table to the ocean: They first connected with chefs and fish traders, then processing and distribution facilities, and ultimately with the seafood-growing sites on Hood Canal and the natural fish habitats off the Seattle waterfront.

    Edward Allison, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, co-led the program with commercial fisherman and sustainable seafood consultant, Amy Grondin. Together, they guided the Council through an exploration into the role fisheries play in food security and how that role may change in the context of climate change.

    Day One


    The Council spent their first morning in Seattle at the University of Washington (UW) receiving a crash course in climate science and fisheries management.

    Dr. Cecilia Bitz, chair of UW’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, talked about how the Puget Sound and Pacific Northwest is experiencing—and projected to experience—climate change. She warned the Council that we have “only experienced a fraction of what we may see in the future.” This grounding and humbling opening reminded the Council of why this work is so important, and so urgent.

    The group then heard from Meg Chadsey, Ocean Acidification Specialist for Washington Sea Grant, the UW chapter of a national program administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She echoed Bitz’s concerns and introduced the Council to the sobering realities of ocean acidification (OA). Chadsey explained that the Puget Sound region’s booming shellfish industry raised alarm in the early 2000s when larval oysters in shellfish hatcheries were failing to survive. As it turned out, what Chadsey called a “triple whammy” of ocean conditions made the region “Ground Zero” for ocean acidification at the time: an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, human pressures on a sensitive estuarine environment, and upwelling of naturally carbon dioxide-rich deep water to the surface. Together, these conditions sometimes made the waters of Puget Sound too corrosive for the vulnerable larval oysters; their delicate calcium carbonate shells were simply dissolving in the acidified seawater.

    However, Chadsey suggested there are reasons to be optimistic about our capacity to mitigate the problem. She is part of a team investigating the potential of kelp aquaculture to improve water quality, create critical marine habitat, and grow food, all while taking carbon dioxide out of the acidified waters of the Puget Sound.

    Other newly-developed tools could also help mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification. For example, Parker MacCready of UW Oceanography demonstrated the LiveOcean model, a tool he likened to “a weather forecast for the ocean,” which is helping fishermen and growers understand and adapt to ocean conditions that can threaten the health of shellfish. The model has other applications beyond ocean chemistry readings; it can also model harmful algal blooms (HABs) that can render culturally and economically significant razor clam toxic, and it has also been used to model the spread of invasive European Green Crab.

    The Council quickly grasped that there are many losers in the fight against climate change. But as Dr. Alan Haynie of the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center told them, “The simple answer is wrong.” He emphasized the need to investigate global climate models on a regional scale to better understand the balance of losers and winners, as the regional story is often more complex than initially meets the eye.Solving problems associated with food security and climate change involves multiple systems operating in a complicated web of interactions that left some Council members feeling more baffled than ever. For example, Allison highlighted the contradictory narratives being told about the role of fish in global food and nutrition security. His work, along with that of others, has found that people in general are eating more protein than needed, and the role of fish is perhaps most critical when considering its ability to provide micronutrients essential for healthy development and life.


    Over a seafood lunch at the Port of Seattle’s Chinook’s restaurant, the Council heard from the Quinault Indian Nation’s Legislative Aide, Tanya Eison. Due to changing climate conditions, the Quinault are facing serious sea level rise and risk tsunami inundation. Tanya told the Council it has come “time to look for a new family home,” perhaps one without perpetual seafoam on the roof. While the first phase of a Master Plan breaks ground this summer, Tanya says convincing tribal members to move to higher ground is a challenge. They have already faced fishery closures, including the closure of their prized sockeye run. While adaptation looks like new homes and alternate fish stocks, Tanya says, “It’s just not the same.”

    After lunch, the Council toured the heart of Seattle’s commercial fishing operations at the Port of Seattle, where Eddie Allison’s tales of coastal squeeze displacing communities from historically working waterfronts rang true. With the commercial fleet up fishing in Alaska and a rainy summer sky looming overhead, the Port felt quiet and strangely empty. However, Port authorities Delmas Whittaker and Kelli Goodwin told the group it’s that perception of underutilized space that threatens to have development pressures overtake the Port’s critical maritime real estate. Without this critical maritime hub, getting seafood to the tables of Seattleites becomes evermore challenging and costly.

    The Port hopes to inspire the next generation of maritime workers by transforming the historic Ship Supply building into a Maritime Innovation Center. The new LEED silver building will offer a variety of services designed to help catalyze innovation within the community by providing education, training, business services, and fostering connections.


    The group ducked out of the rain and warmed up after their Port tour at Orfeo. Over coffee and donuts, the Council heard from Chef Kevin Davis about his approach to integrating sustainable practices into the future of restaurant culture.

    This sparked a discussion led by Amy Grondin, alongside local fish traders and chefs, about efforts to improve the seafood supply chain and respond to changing climate conditions. Panelists included Eddie Allison, Jack Cheney (Sourcing Manager, Real Good Fish), and Chef Kristi Brown (That Brown Girl Cooks!). Conversation kept circling back to a recurring theme: the need for culinary creativity, innovation, and diversity both on the plate and throughout the supply chain. As Amy said, “If everyone around you looks the same, that’s a problem. In the same way, if everything you eat looks the same, that’s also a problem.” This lack of culinary diversity is behind the need to create markets for so-called “trash fish” and promote variety in the seafood hitting our plates.

    So what’s hitting our plates now? The Council ventured down to Pike’s Place to see what Seattle’s famous fish market had to offer. The group had a chance to mingle with panelists, talk with fish traders, and feast with their eyes on the spectacular display of Northwest seafood.


    At the end of a long, informative day of exploration, the Council ferried over to West Seattle to Mashiko Japanese Restaurant for a six-course sushi dinner. Owner Hajime Sato, along with Chef Mariah Kmitta, shared his radical approach to disrupting culinary tradition in favor of sustainability. Since 2009, Sato has been committed to sourcing ethically produced and traceable ingredients, avoiding overly fished species (such as bluefin tuna), and reducing food waste. Dinner at Mashiko was a glimpse into the possibilities awaiting a more sustainable future of food.

    Day two: “Are we crucifying the ocean?”


    The next morning, the Council was up early to continue working backwards through the seafood system. They ventured beyond Seattle proper to Hood Canal, the westernmost basin of Puget Sound, east of the Olympic Mountains. Their visits brought them pre-plate, to seafood processing and distribution facilities, and ultimately to the seafood growing sites on Hood Canal.

    The Council saw and heard the stories of climate impacts to the region during visits to prominent shellfisheries and aquaculture sites that serve the Puget Sound markets. Starting south and progressing northward, the council visited Taylor Shellfish’s processing center and hatcheries, a fifth generation business and the largest producer of shellfish in the country. They then stopped at the Long Live the Kings Finfish Hatchery, stewards of the region’s endangered salmon and steelhead populations. Last came a tour of the growing flats at the family-owned Hama Hama Oyster Saloon.

    The Hood Canal’s incredible biodiversity, including its salmon and steelhead populations and prime growing conditions for oysters and other shellfish species, has made it both the source of Seattle’s seafood culinary scene and of great local pride. However, as OA expert Meg Chadsey outlined during Day 1, the Puget Sound region is warming and acidifying at a greater rate than the global trend. This has serious ramifications for the entire marine food web, from salmon to seals to killer whales. “I’ve seen the decline here firsthand,” said Rick Endicott of Long Live the Kings. “It’s pretty hard to watch.”

    Competition for space in the built environment was nothing new to the Council members, but taking the competition to the water was a first. As the demand for seafood increases and shellfish production expands, new aquaculture operations are popping up offshore, on land, and even in the lab. After seeing the sophistication of the oyster hatcheries, one Council member was heartened. “I started out on Tuesday thinking that there were going to be no more oysters,” he reflected. “And then you go to this thing and it’s almost like it’s Frankenstein’s lab! You can imagine them actually cutting the cord with the natural world entirely and doing this in a giant chemistry set.”

    Cutting that cord felt unsettling to other members, who worried about “becom[ing] so reliant on these man-made systems that we forget about the [natural] habitat.” But as with Chadsey’s kelp investigation, it may be possible to work within the natural seascape to mitigate OA impacts, and thus keep the cord intact.


    Artist David Eisenhour echoed the voices of others as he spoke on the importance of pteropods (marine snails) to the marine food web, and the devastating impact of OA on their survival. Due to changing conditions, the waters of Puget Sound can become too corrosive for pteropods and other marine life; their delicate calcium carbonate shells simply dissolve in the acidified seawater.

    Inspired by the beauty and fragility of the pteropods, Eisenhour’s art connects people to the natural world, often at a scale needing magnification. His pieces challenge us to ask difficult questions about our impact on the world around us. With one, he prompted the Council to question, “Are we crucifying the ocean?”

    Day three: the Seattle waterfront

    The last morning brought the Council back to Seattle, where they toured the waterfront’s drastic redesign, co-led by the City’s Waterfront Director Marshall Foster, and activist Cary Moon. The Council heard about the city’s efforts to restore its physical and cultural connection with the water.

    Culturally-relevant, in the case of Seattle, often means one thing: salmon. Allison later deemed the waterfront as an example of ‘salmon-centered design.’ In the PNW, salmon act as a ‘sustainability integrator,’ bringing together the management of fisheries, marine and freshwater habitats, catchment land-use planning, food systems, nutrition and cultural connection to food and place. In the case of the waterfront, the new Seattle seawall was built to improve previously lost marine habitats, with a special focus on encouraging juvenile salmon migration. Thanks to a specially designed light-penetrating surface in the sidewalk above, young salmon are guided by natural light during their migration along the waterfront.


    Following the visit to the Seattle waterfront, the Council returned to the University of Washington to debrief on the trip. Despite the complexity of the Puget Sound foodscape, the Council found themselves motivated to continue thinking about how to improve human life in the face of climate change and food insecurity. Themes seen in Sacramento were repeated, refined, and recontextualized in Seattle.

    The Council had seen how the shellfish industry turned to innovative solutions to feed future human populations in the face of environmental change, including ocean acidification. This inspired the Council to consider how to redesign and rethink the future of food systems. Ideally, Allison hoped that alternative future would involve producing quality food rather than just “quantity food.” According to Allison, “If your focus turns to nutrition instead of quantity… that maybe starts to lower climate impacts.”

    This challenge sparked a dialogue about the potential to decentralize food systems and focus on local, culturally-relevant foods like salmon and shellfish. The Council considered using the idea of a sustainability integrator to map the interconnectivity of food and climate impacts in a ‘foodscape.’ In this way, consumers could see how iconic local foods could be used as symbols and indicators to advance more sustainable ways of living in cities.

    They also questioned whether the power for changing food systems lay in the intersection of academia and industry. One thing not up for question was the widespread knowledge of climate impacts in the Puget Sound region. This was a stark contrast to the Council’s previous trip to the San Joaquin Valley, where knowledge of climate impacts felt either optional or entirely nonexistent.

    This integrated knowledge of climate change in the Puget Sound was perhaps due to the very real and personal impact it has already had on the people of the region. It was these first hand stories that resonated with the Council. One member found that, “At the end of the day, I love the salmon and all the fish, you know, but it really does come down to people…and how climate change is affecting them. [Tanya’s] whole tribe is having to move because of sea level rise. Those stories are the most important for us to hear and to relay to other people.”

    Certainly, the story of seafood in the Puget Sound region is one fraught with climate vulnerabilities, but it is also one of many collaborative efforts by passionate and innovative people determined to see the seafood sector thrive far into the future. It will remain to be seen how members of the Council will use design to connect the built environment to the natural environment and tell the stories of the people that live, work, and play at that intersection. Surely the new knowledge and perspectives gained from this exploration in Seattle will inform their future personal and professional choices and allow them to shine light onto the topic of climate change and food security through their work.


  4. Via Verde: The Green Way

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    For Van Alen Report 20, we invited designers from around the world to share projects at the vanguard of using science-informed practices to design healthier cities. For each featured project, we asked the designers to identify the health impacts intended, and discuss how insights from neuroscience or psychology influenced the project’s design. We also consider how each project might advance both the conversation about evidence-based design, and the greater pursuit of designing healthier cities for all. These profiles have been adapted from the designers’ responses.

    Via Verde is a residential development in the South Bronx. Co-developed by Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies, in partnership with Dattner Architects and Grimshaw, it was the winning entry in an international competition, sponsored by NYC HPD, the AIA New York, NYSERDA and Enterprise Community Partners. The design uses nature to improve health and knit together a strong social fabric, while achieving the development’s energy goals.

    The Design

    The building takes the form of a “tendril” rising from grade to a tower, enclosing the courtyard and emphasizing a relationship to the natural world. 222 apartments are arranged in three building types—a 20-story tower, a stepped 6- to 13-story mid-rise duplex apartment component in the middle, and 2- to 4-story townhouses to the south. A dynamic series of gardens begins as a ground level courtyard and spirals upwards in a series of south-facing roof gardens.

    Supporting Brain Health

    Via Verde provides permanent affordable housing for the South Bronx, demonstrating that design innovation, social housing, healthy living, and urban renewal are attainable development goals. A holistic approach to design emphasized the well-being of residents.

    Integration of nature was used as a central architectural element and to facilitate social connections. The development features a dynamic inner garden, green roofs connecting the low-rise buildings, fruit and vegetable gardens, and open air courtyards, all which strengthen the social fabric, health, and energy efficiency of the complex.

    The Designer

    William Stein, FAIA, principal at Dattner Architects, has led a wide range of affordable and supportive housing, education, recreation and transportation projects. By prioritizing community advocacy and consensus building among stakeholders to resolve planning, design, budgetary and regulatory challenges, his projects are able to integrate sustainable design into the urban fabric, uniquely responding to each site’s community.

    The Outlook

    Via Verde offers a socially, economically, and environmentally responsible model for the future of social housing. Health assets, which include accessibility, access to care, connection to nature, and a sense of place, should not be seen as a luxury. Incorporating nature and prioritizing health boosts the economic and physical wellbeing of the community, doesn’t have to come at a higher building cost, in spite of cost assumptions related to green certification. As cities prepare to house millions of incoming urban dwellers in addition to an already pressing housing shortage, we should look to examples of affordable housing that move past the low-quality stereotype and history of social housing, and instead offer low income residents the same accessibility and wellbeing as market rentals.

  5. Van Alen Council: Design Challenges of Climate Change

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    In April 2018, I was asked to join the Van Alen Council – a unique collection of system thinkers and designers (architects, engineers, landscape architects, planners and researchers). The council’s mission is to investigate critical issues of climate change that could be alleviated by design and recommend pathways where design can advance our built environment for more sustainable, resilient and thriving communities.

    I am humbled to be included in a team of such high-level thinkers who all share a passion to try to use their skills to solve some of the “big picture” challenges our world is facing.  In July 2018, we took our first investigative trip to the Central Valley region of California where we had the opportunity to learn about how climate change is influencing the complexities of our food systems. We were using this first trip to better understand the specific issues facing our food systems, and to clarify the role of the council itself.

    The result from the trip was a narrowed focus on a few themes related to food and climate change.  The team, supported by local subject matter experts, focused on three themes: impacts of social equity, food waste and general public awareness of food.

    On our return trip in January 2019, I was able to head out to California a few days early for client workshops, which also allowed for a side trip to Paradise, the site of the horrific Campfire wildfires. This was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. The town was recently declared “open”, but no one was there… just logging teams and hazmat crews trying to pick up the pieces—literally. As I traveled down street after street, I was stunned by the seemingly endless destruction. I came across a deer stumbling through the rubble and ashes. He was completely unphased by my presence—one random guy walking down the street with his camera was no match for the experiences he had survived. I was also struck by the randomness of it all—on one street stood a line of equally-spaced chimneys atop piles of rubble where houses once stood. The destruction was interrupted by a solitary home that had been completely untouched by the fury of the fires.

    No one could have predicted the massive destruction that happened in Paradise, yet disaster of this proportion is becoming more and more common due to the changes in our climate. As I traveled to meet my Van Alen colleagues, I was reflecting on how we are charged with designing for a world of variables, and many of those variables are beyond our control.

    On this second trip, we saw so many different people who could benefit from thoughtful system approaches—from the artisanal farmers who are trying to stay afloat to the workers who need better equipment to the distributors who are trying to find the best way to get the food to the people who need it.

    One of the most glaring observations from the trip was the challenge that exists in getting food to where it is needed most. We were conducting our research in one of the largest concentrations of “big ag” in the country. Food is being grown everywhere you look yet many adjacent communities are struggling with food insecurity. Compounding this dichotomy is the irony of the tremendous issue of food waste. Each step of the food system (from production, transportation, distribution, sale, and consumption) contains a tremendous amount of wasted resources. How could some farmers be incentivized to leave 30% of a crop in the field because it was not deemed attractive enough for sale, yet a mile away a community was struggling with food insecurity and chronic health issues?

    Surely the system needs intervention for economic, environment and social benefit.

    Even in the short-time we spent exploring this issue, there was a sense of optimism from the council. Yes, the issues are extraordinarily complex and there was a concern that intervention at any scale could advance one issue to the detriment of another. However, the model the Council is exploring, building upon recent successes of large, interdisciplinary competitions such as Rebuild by Design and Resilient by Design, will hopefully offer a set of unique and critically important perspectives to a very complex problem.

    Not surprisingly, the team did discover many unique design opportunities that can contribute to the solution. Education and communications are a big part of the answer. People love beautiful fruit, but they need to understand that an “ugly” strawberry is just as tasty and nutritious as a slightly less attractive one. Creating the right partnerships is another element of the solution. We need to get the various participants in the system working together to create a process that is more efficient and effective in getting food from the field to the store to your table.

    This is a complex issue and we are not naïve enough to think that we’re going to solve it in a couple of trips, but I’m excited to continue this important work with the Council and energized by the opportunity to be part of a team that has the commitment and resources to truly make a difference.

    I’ve been reflecting on the perspectives of my time both in Paradise as well as the Council investigative trip. As a practitioner that prides myself on integrated solutions across disciplines and scales, I know what a challenge it is to positively impact complex systems with design. The challenge has grown exponentially more complex due to the environmental, market, political and social externalities brought on by climate change. In a world that has so many uncertainties, we have the responsibility — personally and professionally — to strive to create interventions that are even more thoughtful.

  6. Van Alen Council: Designing the Future of Food, Part II

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    As climate change compromises food production and access the world over, “breadbaskets” like California are among the most vulnerable regions, primed as case studies to explore innovations and alternative strategies. From Jan 9–11, 2019, the Van Alen Council returned to California’s Central Valley for the second installment of a two-part trip, investigating the potential of design to foster a food system capable of carrying us into the future.

    Building on their exploratory visit in July of 2018, which surveyed the three major components of food production – water, labor, and land – the Council dove deeper into the social dimension, understanding the complex web of relationships and dependencies that comprise the food system and envisaging design solutions in response to what they heard and observed.

    To probe this topic, the Council covered 200 miles over three days, engaging with a range of stakeholders and intensive workshopping. Through the myriad opportunities they identified, four principle themes emerged around ways to advance sustainable food-systems solutions: Change People’s Perception of Food; Promote Alternative Industries; Imagine Predictable, Resilient Systems; and Connect People and Culture.

    Van Alan invited Sahoko Yui, PhD, lecturer in the University of California Davis and University of California Berkeley Department of Landscape Architecture and Artist in Residence at Blake Garden, to join the Climate Council’s expedition and chronicle their learning. Below is an account of the Council’s journey – their conversations and revelations – as they sought to apply design thinking to a system, under-explored by this critical discipline.


    In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report warning that the impacts from global temperatures rising 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit were far worse than previously expected and would have dire consequences for all sectors of the economy, hitting vulnerable communities the hardest. The IPCC report was one of 12 significant climate reports released last year, 11 of which were published after the Van Alen Climate Council’s first visit to California in mid-July. While their focus varied from healthfood securityenvironmental policy, and extreme events, the key takeaway was the same for all—we must act boldly and swiftly to reverse the trajectory and prevent further negative consequences of climate change. Not only were there a record number of groundbreaking reports published between the two Climate Council visits, but the nation also experienced the impacts of hotter temperatures and more intense storms. In November, California fought off two wildfires, making this one of the deadliest months of fire in the state’s history. In October, Florida and other southeastern states hurriedly evacuated their homes to flee Hurricane Michael, one of the strongest storms in Florida’s history.

    While the dramatic weather events and natural disasters attracted media attention, the climate reports indicated a need to investigate slower changes and impacts on our food system, public health, and economy. The Central Valley was a good fit as a case study for the Climate Council. A recently published article in 2018 by a UC Merced research team led by Dr. Tapan Pathak identified the key ways that climate change will impact the agricultural system in California. Among them, reduced chill hours and increased crop water stress could affect the sustainability of many crops. Climate change will also affect agricultural production through modifications in the biology and ecology of insects, pathogens, and weedy competitors. Furthermore, in 2018 a study by Chandrakala Ganesh and Jason A. Smith in the American Journal of Public Health found that climate change will also affect the public health of communities engaged in agriculture, such as rising temperatures causing more heat-related hospitalizations and injuries, exposures particulate matter increasing negative health outcomes such as cardiovascular illnesses and exacerbation of asthma symptoms. The study also raised the concern of mental health issues from climate-related disaster trauma, describing the phenomenon of solastalgia as “a sense of desolation and loss of identity that an individual experiences as their familiar home environment changes, becomes uninhabitable, or hampers their livelihood,” which affects more people in place-specific professions, such as the farming and fishing industries. In addition to environmental sustainability and public health, the economic impact of changes in agriculture in the Central Valley due to climate change are projected to be in the billions. The California drought cost an estimated loss of 2.7 billion dollars in revenue and a loss of 21,000 jobs at its peak.

    Design professionals, like those who comprise the Van Alen Climate Council, are well-positioned to tackle complex climate change issues because of their training and experience creatively applying systems thinking to local contexts. Founded in 2018, the Climate Council is an interdisciplinary group of designers whose purpose is to investigate critical climate-related issues, inspire change-making design projects that can improve the environment and promote healthy communities, advocate changes in mindset regarding climate issues, and guide Van Alen’s innovative public programming, research, and design competitions. The Climate Council’s research trip to the Central Valley last summer involved visits to places associated with various facets of the region’s food industry, ranging from a large-scale farm to a tomato processing plant (read more about the previous Climate Council visit here). Participants learned about advanced technologies and ambitious policies applied to increase efficiency and production output while responding to the realities of a changing climate.

    During the return visit, the Climate Council built upon members’ foundational knowledge and delved into the social dimensions of the food system, focusing on the farmer, the farm worker, and the consumer. Over a three-day period from January 9 to 11, the Climate Council held discussions with food systems experts, met with various farmers, visited a food bank, and heard the stories of immigrant farm workers. A set of questions emerged for the Climate Council to explore: in what ways are the people who comprise the food system—the farmer, the farm worker, and the consumer—impacted by climate change? How can interdisciplinary design professionals enhance the security and resilience of communities that support or are conversely supported by the agricultural industry?

    Key takeaways from the January visit to the Central Valley centered around how policy and industrial ag have changed agricultural farming practices, how farming has affected the Central Valley environment and community, and how climate change will stress an already fragile community and environment:

    The economics and practices of farming have changed significantly in the past 30 years, and farms of all scales have had to significantly shift their farming practices to keep up with industrialized ag, environmental policies, and increasing demand to feed a growing population.
    While the Central Valley provides one of the greatest resources to the nation’s food access and quality, the investment into the communities is not commensurate with the value that the Central Valley brings.
    Climate change exacerbates the social and environmental challenges of a community that is already struggling with drought, food insecurity, poor air and water quality, and high unemployment.

    Day one

    The first day of the trip kicked off with morning workshops to revisit the learnings of the July visit and expand upon the members’ knowledge by engaging a range of experts in discussion. The workshop included the 16 Climate Council participants and 15 experts spanning the subjects of science, food, water, energy, and policy (a full list of attendees at the bottom).

    The purpose of the workshop was to provide a foundation for the upcoming three-day visit by revealing the interconnectedness of the food system and hone the line of questions that would guide subsequent discussions. Dr. Ned Spang, assistant professor at the UC Davis Food and Innovation Institute, and Dr. Austin Brown, executive director at UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, echoed the need for a holistic, systems thinking approach: “You can’t talk about issues surrounding food production, access, and consumption without talking about the built environment, land use, transportation, energy, and how land is allocated to all these resources,” Ned Spang said. “We have to think about the connectivity of all these systems, you can’t take it in isolation.” Dr. Spang hosted the event “From Farm to Table and Back Again” with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree to discuss the topic of food waste. They both argued for an interdisciplinary approach to tackle food waste issues. From the resource perspective, Dorene D’Adamo, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, reminded us of the need to think about fisheries; in December 2018, her board passed a controversial plan to pump water from the San Joaquin River from farms to cities to revive struggling fish populations.

    While well-known effects of climate change on food, such as higher temperatures and drought were discussed, the group also learned lesser-known facts, including those pertaining to the effects of weeds and food waste. Dr. Lynn Sosnoskie, a weed scientist, raised the need to address the impacts that “insects and weeds are going to have on agriculture because the types of practices available to control these organisms aren’t going to be the same under changing climate conditions.” Kyle Pogue, environmental program manager at CalRecycle, pointed out that there are six million tons of food waste in California every year, mostly going to landfills. “How do we reduce, prevent, and reuse food waste?” he asked. On the consumer side, Martine Boswell, CalRecycle environmental scientist, argued that addressing the issue of food waste requires a deeper awareness of what’s going on in all sectors of the food system and identifying the hot spots of food waste. “Why do we have cosmetic standards for food in the first place?” she asked.

    Others shared the importance of acknowledging the community, how they are impacted, and the significance of local and external perspectives. Dr. Marc Schenker, distinguished professor at UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences, argued that “California ag wouldn’t exist without farm workers –immigrant farm workers. We need to recognize that and the health disparity that exists.” And Gail Wadsworth, executive director of California Institute for Rural Studies, shared the importance of learning from the local community. “These people are working on the land,” she said, “and they are all aware of what’s happening, and they are impacted by it the most.” Furthermore, Sara Tiffany of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) added that the Climate Council needed to “keep a scope that allows for the nuance between different kinds of farms and farmers and the unique challenges they face.”

    The Climate Council visited farms ranging in size from 20 acres to 1,100 acres, and we found that each had their own hurdles and differing philosophies on how to handle those challenges. We also noted that no one knew more about the land better than the farmers, farm workers, and the community that lived there. Geography PhD candidate Mayra Sanchez reminded us that climate change “is not always something that is catastrophic and sudden. It changes and impacts communities differently, over long periods of time, and at different scales.” This thought is particularly important and echoed the need to think and act proactively rather than reactively. John Andrew, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources, emphasized the importance of having outside perspectives like that of the Climate Council and getting to know one another’s assumptions and perspectives. “It is important for people like me who are deep into these issues to talk to people like you who are not traditionally looking at these issues and see what kind of questions you all are asking.”

    Throughout the discussion, experts offered insights and highlighted opportunities. Dr. Mark Cooper, assistant professor at UC Davis Department of Human Ecology, emphasized the importance and significance of this research in California because “climate change is going to transform California agriculture in unprecedented ways in the next 10 to 20 years. The exciting thing about looking at this in California is how to answer these agricultural questions outside of California. The intensity of these problems are going to start manifesting more and more elsewhere outside of California.” California is one of five regions in the world with a Mediterranean Climate, all of which are key agricultural hubs and many which are already experiencing climate change impacts according to Wolfgang et al 2018. There is an incredible opportunity to think about the global impact of the role of design in food and climate change. Bob Segar, UC Davis campus planner, suggested that the Climate Council use its strengths in placemaking to improve food security. “There’s an opportunity we can program places in a way that brings diverse communities together around food, food access, and healthy food together.”

    Yolo Press

    In the afternoon, we met with Dr. Mike Madison from Yolo Press Farm in Winters, about 10 minutes west of Davis. He gave us a tour and shared his experience as a late-in-life first-generation farmer of a small farm. The modest 22-acre farm is run by he and his wife Diane. Many of his observations about the changes he has seen in his years as a farmer can be gleaned from the book he wrote as Artist in Bioregional Residence for the Putah Cache Bioregion Project at UC Davis, Walking the Flatlands, in which he discussed their responses to the economic and cultural shifts. Jan Goggans writes in the book’s forward, “Bioregionalism means you are aware of the ecology, economy, and culture of the place where you live and are committed to making choices that enhance them.” Madison aspires to run the farm in a way that demonstrates an equal commitment to the land and to the community.

    In an industry that has become highly industrial, Madison explains how small farms like his have survived and in some cases thrived. Local agriculture relies on intense labor, simple technologies, biologically diverse landscapes, and branding with the farmer’s name, marketing itself directly to the consumer and selling products at higher prices. For example, growing tomatoes for canning is mechanized, and the products are sold at a three cents per pound. It requires expensive machinery (close to a million dollars) to grow and harvest and enough land to make it economically viable. Local farms have focused on selling heirloom tomatoes that are labor intensive and sold at farmers markets at three dollars per pound—100 times the price of canned tomatoes. Value-added products such as jams, oils, and dried fruits and grains are also key to improve profits. The benefit to such products is that they can be sold at a higher price for a longer period of time. Madison notes that olive oil-based skincare products are the most profitable component of olive oil. Additionally, some farmers in the area travel great distances through bad weather and Bay Area traffic to sell their products at higher prices—double and sometimes triple those of the Central Valley. Madison explains that while he understands the economic benefit to growing food in one region and selling in another, his philosophy is to not to make money but to be able to provide for his community, so he makes an active decision to nourish the community where he grows his food by selling at the locals farmers markets at reasonable rates.

    Despite working far more than the 40 hours a week and making less than half of minimum wage, he has no complaints. Madison explains that he has access to good food, good drinking water, and good schools for his kids. He lives far better than most people in the world. While he encourages the younger generation to enter the farming industry, he recognizes the challenges and hurdles. Current first-generation farmers have it much tougher than when he first entered the farming industry over 30 years ago. Land is far more expensive today, and young people today carry significantly more debt. To provide some perspective, when Mike got his land in the 1980s it cost less than $100,000; now it is worth more than $1 million. He advised first-generation farmers to opt for leasing land rather than owning. The second piece of advice he had was to expect lots of failure but to learn from that failure.

    Full Belly

    We ended the day with a visit to Full Belly Farms in the Capay Valley—an hour northwest of Yolo Press Farms. It is a 400-acre organic farm owned by Judith Redmond, Andrew Brait, Paul Muller, Dru Rivers, Jenna Muller, and Amon Muller. Among their varied products are herbs and nuts as well as chickens, sheep, goats, and cows. They sell within a 120-mile radius of the farm (which is about a third of California from to the east as far as Truckee, as far north as Redding, and as far south as San Jose). Their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects—programs to purchase directly from farmers—are among the most popular in the area. Redmond, also a board member of CAFF, detailed the various ways that Full Belly practices sustainable farming, explaining that “organic is much, much more than a set of things that we do not use. Organic is a very proactive process.” She detailed the importance of the California Healthy Soils Initiative, a collaborative initiative to research farm and land management practices, increase carbon sequestration, and improve overall soil health. Cover crops were all over the fields to improve soil health, enhance water availability, help control pests, and improve carbon sequestration. The question was posed, “Is there a quantifiable benefit to the cover crops, such as higher yields?” Redmond explained that there are currently no measurable quantifiable benefits, such as economic benefits or crop yields. In fact, she explained, crop yields are typically lower for organic crops. However, she stated that she believes the soil is far healthier and the crops are much more flavorful.

    In contrast to Yolo Press, Full Belly urges a higher markup toward a greater investment in food. “We are unabashedly trying to convince people that they should pay more for their food,” said Redmond. Full Belly prides itself on sustainable farming practices such as cage free chickens and hedgerows, but it comes at a price. Their philosophy is that prices should reflect the great deal of time, energy, and resources it takes to produce food. “How much do you think a dozen eggs should cost?” she said. “We sell them for $8 and can sell 80 to 90 dozen at the farmers market. They sell out really fast. The egg yolks are really deep yellow. We feel like we should not even call our eggs ‘eggs’ because they are so good.” Full Belly, like Yolo Press Farms, provides value-added products such as wool, olive oil, and preserves. Additionally, they offer experiences: Full Belly Farm events like the Hoe Down and monthly farm dinners are well known in the community. They also host private events such as weddings and even provided a dinner for the Van Alen Climate Council.

    Day two

    The second day we started out early and headed in the opposite direction, further into the heart of the Central Valley. Our first stop was the Merced County Food Bank, ground zero for food insecurity. Rounding out the day, the Council heard firsthand the experiences of farm workers at the Madera outpost of the United Farm Workers Union, the nation’s first and largest farm workers union. On the way there, we viewed a documentary by Jim Thebaut, Beyond the Brink, which was filmed during the fourth year of the recent California drought. In the movie, Thebaut argues for the need to address the nexus of water, food, and community as a national security issue. Trained as a landscape architect and formerly an environmental planner, Thebaut turned to filmmaking to communicate pressing environmental and social concerns.

    Merced County Food Bank

    The Merced County Food Bank (MCFB), the largest food bank in the Central Valley, supplies thousands of tons of food to food pantries all across Merced and Mariposa counties. Food insecurity is defined as a federal measure of a household’s ability to provide enough food for every person in the household to have an active, healthy life. Despite the Central Valley being one of the richest food-production and farming areas in the world, it also has one of the highest rates of food insecurity for families and children. Additionally, a study showed that 45 percent of farmworkers in Fresno County, the country’s most productive agricultural county, are food insecure. The MCFB is part of Feeding America, a network which sets standards for food donation from farmers, manufacturers, and retailers. They receive food from Walmart and Target and local farms such as Bowles Farming Company. At the MCFB, we had a discussion with Bob Gibbs, Merced County Food Bank executive director; Vernette Doty, UC Merced associate director of the Community Engagement Center; Amelia Johnson of the UC Merced Blum Center for Alleviating Poverty and Social Disparities; and Bavneet Kaur, UC Merced Global Food Initiative coordinator. The MCFB’s million dollar annual budget comes mostly from private funders (85 percent) and the remaining from government funding (15 percent). Most of its costs go to overhead such as transportation, employee salaries, and equipment leases. The MCFB relies heavily on volunteers to help; there are 13 staff members and over 2,000 unpaid volunteers.

    Despite the robust volunteer base, the MCFB does not have enough resources to meet the community’s needs. About 25 percent of the 300,000 population of Merced and Mariposa counties lives under the federal poverty line. Furthermore, 70 to 80 percent of elementary school kids in Merced are on the free meal program. The MCFB is one of 58 food banks in California and serves about 20–25,000 people a month. While the service is important and fulfills a demand, it is not enough to meet the daily nutritional and caloric needs. Gibbs explained that an average family will pick up a single 10–20 lbs bag per month. That’s only 0.3–0.6 lbs per person per day, which is less than half of what is needed per day. In addition to the lack of resources to distribute the food, the lack of consistent and reliable transportation and resources to prepare the food also contribute to food insecurity. Distributing food to pantries requires people to drive the vehicles and funds to purchase fuel. However, with limited funds and availability of people, food does not always get distributed. Food that cannot be distributed is placed outside the food bank daily for anyone to pick up. While healthy food such as fresh produce is welcome, it can be challenging because so much of it is available within a short period of time and has a short shelf life. Foods like processed foods and candies that have long shelf lives offer a different challenge, meeting caloric needs but not always meeting nutritional needs. Another challenge is that once individuals obtain the food, individuals and households may not know how to prepare it or have resources such as kitchens or cooking utensils. Doty, Johnson, and Kaur mentioned that foods like kale and butternut squash would be a welcome addition to some households but a foreign and confusing item for others. Homeless populations, college students, and people with an insecure housing situation may have limited mobility, time, and access to food preparation.

    Bowles Farming Company

    We revisited Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos, located about 30 minutes southwest of Merced. At Bowles Farm, we received a tour from Cannon Michael, president/ CEO of Bowles, and the farm’s maintenance director, and had a fruitful discussion with Derek Azevedo, the company’s vice president; Reyn Akiona, its environmental program director; and Scott Silveira, the Local County Supervisor of Los Banos. As an elected official and former dairy farmer, Silveira had a wealth of information and insight to share about the ag community. Some of the key issues he mentioned were dealing with the increasing population, the pressure to do more with less, and the changing climate. In 2017, Merced County was the fastest growing county in the state due to the comparatively cheap housing prices. Silveira articulated two main concerns of a community growing too quickly in a county without the resources to support the growth. As more people move to Merced, it places more pressure on existing resources that are already strained, such as transportation infrastructure. He described the delicate situation of many residents in Merced County, explaining that over 90 percent of the homes foreclosed in 2008 and unemployment rates are consistently double the national average. Moreover, the amenities taken for granted in the San Francisco Bay Area are not as widely available, and people moving to Merced that still work in the Bay Area may still be using its goods and services, thus not contributing to the local economy. He echoed Bob Earle’s comments that Merced County could benefit from new industries and asked the Climate Council “to see what we’re doing so that you can help spread the good word of the good things going on in Merced County.”

    While Bowles, Full Belly, and Yolo Press are completely different kinds of farmers and reach different markets, they all agreed on how the recent industrialization and mechanization of ag changed the way they farm. The cost of new equipment increased significantly, which forced farms to increase yields and sell more value-added products to make ends meet. Yields for most foods like milk, tomatoes, and olive oil have increased significantly in the past 30 years. Additionally, produce and foodstuffs for processing have reduced food loss. In the case of tomatoes, at Bowles Farming, 100 percent of tomatoes for processing are harvested, whereas 50 percent of fresh tomatoes are harvested. Food loss due to the high cosmetic standards for produce is also significant, and Azevedo, Akiona, and Silveira challenged us to think differently about “ugly” produce—pockmarked, imperfect, or oddly shaped agricultural products that consumers often reject in markets as unsightly. They discussed how consumer perception could change toward ugly produce in the same way that consumer attitudes have recently changed to value artisanal foods. Azevedo said that today’s consumer is looking for a trustworthy company that delivers two things: flavor and quality. He cited the example of olive oil production in California, a product that didn’t make economic sense to produce because it is so much cheaper to produce in Europe. However, due to the olive oil controversy in Europe (other oils, such as hazelnut oil were mixed with olive oil and sold as pure olive oil) the market opened up the door for other California producers to provide olive oil.

    At the end of our visit Michael and Azevedo gave us a tour of the farmworker housing on Bowles Farm: eight units on the farm, right next to the fields. Michael said that as a society we have to acknowledge that farm work is primarily done by migrant laborers. During the 2008 recession—the worst since the Great Depression—people were foreclosing on their homes left and right, he said. While they were desperate for work, it was still only immigrants that came knocking on his door for a job.

    United Farm Workers Union

    We ended the day by visiting the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) in Madera, 30 minutes south of Merced. Founded by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and other early activists, this pioneering labor organization was formed to help improve working conditions and wages for farmworkers. We met with two UFW staff—Regional Director Antonio Cortes and Organizer Coordinator Lizbeth Valdez—and five members of the union—Agustin, Jesus, Crecencio, Veronica, and Antonio-Cortes. Valdez presented us with the story of a 17-year old Mexican farmworker, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who collapsed on May 14, 2008 after working in a vineyard for more than nine hours in the hot sun. The cause of death was a heat stroke. The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration made changes to their heat standards and field inspections, and some farms have started to implement nighttime harvesting. While regulations for working conditions in heat have improved, there are still huge issues for farmworkers in California.

    Immigration restrictions, low wages, and difficult working conditions are the greatest challenges that the workers face, all which are exacerbated by the labor burdens of contract work. Cheap and reliable transportation is largely unavailable in the Central Valley, so many farmworkers have to rely on managers to provide rides, some of whom charge $10 per day. Agustin mentioned that while some can afford to purchase a car, for many the ongoing maintenance is too expensive. Other labor burdens are paying for their own tools they use on the farm, such as gloves and knives. In a profession where the job situation is insecure and wages are low with little promise of upward mobility, each additional cost means less income goes toward basic needs like food and housing. Despite an aging farmworker population, fewer people entering the industry, and a need for farmworkers, there have been no wage increases, and progress has been slow in improving working conditions. On top of that, the current administration’s stance on immigration has only further deterred people from entering the industry.

    On a personal level, UFM members recounted the deep impact of farm work on their family life. Jesus, who had worked in the fields for 18 years, shared that he had two kids who he hadn’t seen in years. Veronica also shared that she worked well into her pregnancy, alongside other pregnant women in the field. Crecencio mentioned that as a legal resident he offers support to his undocumented friends. Each nodded in agreement when Eleazar mentioned that sometimes the foreman would target undocumented workers for abuse and harassment. Veronica also highlighted that she experienced sexual discrimination and harassment in the field from her employers. Research and policy change on farm working conditions and health has been ongoing, but passing policy and implementing changes and practices on the ground is slow, and once passed, the changes are not always widely enforced. The impacts, meanwhile, can be long-lasting. For example, pesticide regulations have greatly improved working conditions for farm workers, but toxic pesticides are still being used on certain farms, having an intergenerational impact on farmworker communities.

    At the end the discussion, Veronica said, “Next time you see a bowl of salad, think of us.” Of course we will.


    This trip brought us a little closer to understanding how people are impacted in the industrialized food system and seeing opportunities for design to celebrate the culture of food, utilize technological and anthropological solutions to improve the food system, and create resilient communities in the face of climate change. A discussion on the last day of the trip helped bring the trip to a close by identifying four themes for creating opportunities to advance sustainable food-systems solutions: Change People’s Perception of Food; Promote Alternative Industries; Imagine Predictable, Resilient Systems; and Connect People and Culture.

    Create opportunities to Change People’s Perception of Food by celebrating and educating them about local food and culture. Throughout the trip there were lots of conversations about the changing culture and perception of food. All three farmers we visited mentioned the growth of the artisanal food industry and the desire to learn more about where food comes from, how it’s made, and where it goes. The group found that there are ways to ride the wave of shifting perceptions of food through:

    • Stories – Humanizing farmers and farmworkers through first-person stories and by including them in CSA boxes or olive oil bottles, for instance by distributing Farmer Trading cards.
    • Education – Partner with schools—elementary to university—to create spaces and times for creative entrepreneurship and the employment of food and food waste to celebrate local knowledge, culture, and cuisine.
    • Messengers – Using marketing to educate about food, for instance by asking local political figures to convey information, and challenge assumptions about ugly produce, wildlife, and healthy foods.
    • Metrics and Data – A metric that can quantify social impacts of organic foods and community health that have otherwise been ignored.

    Promote Alternative Industries through investing in tourism and technology. There is a need for businesses and communities to reinvent themselves to survive and thrive. The Central Valley has a beautiful landscape, compelling history, and amazing food that is supported by farmers, farmworkers, and others in the ag industry. These assets present an opportunity for the Central Valley leverage its cultural richness and attract tourism and other businesses, bringing additional wealth and revenue into the community.

    • Agrotourism – High-end artisanal tourism can help brand the food and educate the public, using distinct products like cantaloupes in the same way Napa Valley has done with wine.
    • Branding – Using the name Los Banos (“the baths”) to promote and celebrate the water system that enables food production.
    • Knowledge – Bringing people to the area by sharing expertise and specialized knowledge about processes like food waste management, redistribution, and reuse.
    • Technology and Innovation – Create or partner with tech startups to develop food loss software (CropMobster to redistribute food loss) or food desert car shares (Lyft Grocery Access program).
    • Industrial design – Tools and equipment like clippers can be improved to make them easier to use and longer-lasting for farm workers.

    Imagine Predictable, Resilient Systems by creating better housing, providing community resources and sustainable and reliable transportation, developing resilient practices, and passing regulatory change.

    • Regulatory change – Changing policy to improve housing, waste management, and transportation access and maintenance.
    • Transportation – Provide affordable transportation systems for communities, such as a car share system for farm workers and rides to and from food banks.
    • Resilient practices – Work with designers and ecologists to tweak landscape, mitigating wind damage (hedgerows).
    • Labor resources – Provide affordable and mobile refuge stations for farm workers.
    • Housing – Mobile, flexible housing and zoning for greater density.
    • Community resources – Create infrastructure and resources to help the community, such as a community center with expanded child care.

    Provide spaces to Connect People and Culture by creating networks and physical spaces to bring people together in appropriate cultural areas. There is generally a feeling of stress experienced by farm owners, farmworkers, and the community. Farmers feel increasing pressure to optimize yields and be more efficient under changing climate conditions, and workers have incredible physical, environmental, and political stressors that impact their quality of life. This presents opportunities to create collective, shared experiences and build community based on the process of farming.

    • Community Space – Create a physical community center that can be used by all members of the community, including farmers, farmworkers, and teachers, and provide spaces to celebrate and learn through food like community kitchens in New York.
    • Existing facilities – Examples like the soccer fields at Bowles Farm provide a physical space where festivals and gatherings can take place, such as a family day that celebrates the community of farmers and farmworkers.

    While the trip to the Central Valley represents the culmination of the Van Alen Climate Council’s research on food as a topic for its investigation of design and policy opportunities in relation to climate change, this has not stopped members from using the connections and knowledge acquired during this trip to move the conversation forward, and some members will be presenting conclusions from this trip, lessons learned, and design opportunities at ASLA in San Diego this November.


    Claire Weisz

    Principal-in-Charge, WXY

  7. Van Alen Council: Designing for the Future of Food, Part I

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    Van Alen Institute welcomes guest writer Sahoko Yui, PhD, a lecturer in the University of California Davis and University of California Berkeley Department of Landscape Architecture and Artist in Residence at Blake Garden, who attended the Van Alen Council’s trip to the Central Valley of California in July 2018.

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that industrial agriculture is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the extent and widespread recognition of the impact of food on climate change, design efforts for system-wide change of food systems are in the early stages. Current design efforts to avert the negative impacts of food-related climate change primarily focus on local place-making (e.g. urban gardens) and have yet to expand design thinking to larger scales and broader impacts. While redesigning and improving local community food sources and management is important for resiliency, they do not address the larger systemic issues embedded in food systems that play a significant role in climate change and mitigation. Designers and planners are uniquely situated as professionals who think abstractly, broadly, and radically while applying their ideas practically and locally. It is appropriate that the Van Alen Climate Council gathered in California, the source of most of the nation’s produce production, to learn about the nation’s food system.

    California agriculture is a $50 billion industry and generates over $100 billion in related economic activity, producing over a third of the country’s vegetables and 2/3 of the country’s fruits and nuts. California is also one of the main producers (99% or more) of the following crops: olives, peaches, dates, raisins, walnuts, plums, pistachios, artichokes, and almonds. The most productive agricultural region is the Central Valley, a 450-mile long stretch of flat land from Redding to Bakersfield. The Central Coast has also been a significant player in the produce industry, as it’s responsible for producing more than 80% of the nation’s berries and produces most of the world’s lettuce, giving it the nickname “The Salad Bowl of the World.” While California produces a significant portion of the nation’s food, often at the sacrifice of resources and human health, 40% of the food produced goes uneaten in the U.S. This comes at a time when the USDA estimates that 1 in 8 Americans are food insecure. This was one of many dichotomies that we found in the food system.

    The Council’s three-day visit to various farms and food production facilities in California revealed the complex interplay of structural, social, and environmental issues in the food chain. While the individual production and processing facilities were shown to be highly efficient, the scale of production and pressure to meet increasing food demands resulted in negative externalities on land, labor, and resources. Land subsidence due to excessive groundwater pumping and the lack of affordable housing shortages particularly for migrating farm laborers are a few examples of the unintended consequences of highly engineered food production and processing facilities. The negative impacts are felt most acutely on the farms but still have far-reaching climate impacts on both urban and rural communities.

    We started each day waiting for a giant bus to pick us up at the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel in Sacramento, located at the new Downtown Commons (DOCO). DOCO is the newest urban development and includes the controversial Golden 1 stadium, home of the NBA Sacramento Kings. Once the site of a large productive wetland that became an agricultural hub, Sacramento is now in the process of changing its image through urban development, aiming to be urban hub. While Sacramento is distancing itself from the image of a “cow town,” the rich agricultural history is also a point of pride as evidenced by the “Farm to Fork Capital” title on the water tower seen from the freeway as you enter the city limits.

    The first day we visited General Produce, located ten minutes away from DOCO in the northern part of the grid of Sacramento. It was one of two reliefs from the heat that we got during the whole trip. General Produce, like many other farms in California, is family owned and has been handed down through the generations. The General Produce manager, David John, gave us a tour showing us various produce and a surprisingly large amount of mayonnaise that they store, ready to be shipped off and distributed to local grocery stores. This is the last stop for most produce before it reaches its final destination: a grocery store or restaurant. Bright yellow, red, and orange bell peppers were carefully wrapped and ready to be placed on grocery store shelves, and heirloom tomatoes by the boxful showed off their colorful skins. We also noticed some boxes with Chinese and Japanese writing; these had a long journey ahead of them. As we ventured further into the maze-like setting, we passed by the banana-ripening room that is carefully monitored by banana experts (yes, you read that right) to ensure that the room is at the right temperature and pressure so the fruit is ripe by the time it’s on your kitchen counter.

    While General Produce delivers to Northern California, parts of Nevada and Oregon, and even exports some produce to Asia, just one block away is the local homeless shelter, Loaves and Fishes. Right outside General Produce, tents and homeless people often line the street. Just three blocks away from General Produce and Loaves and Fishes is Blue Diamond Growers, the world’s largest tree nut processing and marketing company. There is a paradox in General Produce, a place with an abundance of food ready to be shipped hundreds–and in some cases thousands–of miles away and an almond processing plant, one of the most lucrative crops in the industry, being so close to the local homeless shelter. General Produce stated that they donate some excess food to shelters and for pig feed, but 25% of their food waste still ends up in landfills. Andrew McLeod, a local historian who joined us on the trip, pointed out that Ten Acre Tracts in downtown Sacramento had similar issues of being an impoverished food desert that was also home to numerous produce wholesalers.

    In the Central Valley between July and October, it is common see a semi filled to the brim with tomatoes. That truck is most likely head to Morning Star or another one of the dozen tomato processing facilities in the Central Valley. After our visit to General Produce, we headed to Williams about 1 hour north of Sacramento to the Morning Star Tomato Processing Plant. The drive up the I-5 freeway was quiet and scenic, with endless rows of walnut and apple trees against clear blue skies. Getting off the bus we were immediately exposed to the harsh Central Valley sun during the hottest July ever recorded in California’s history. While the Central Valley is known to have hot summers temperatures, several records have been broken in the past decade. The increasing temperatures are a symptom of climate change and also a key influence on farm food loss and disasters such as wildfires. Little did we know that we were only 30 miles away from the site of what would become known as the Mendocino Complex fire, the largest wildfire in California history that would start just 10 days after our visit. Claire Weisz, Ali Sants, and Amy Franchescini immediately put on their hats and prepared for the tour of modern industrial engineering’s solution to efficient food processing. The structure and surrounding landscape looked eerily similar to a coal mining plant. It was sterile, remote, place-neutral, and a highly controlled environment where we did not see a single tomato, or even a picture of a tomato, the entire length of the 1.5-hour tour.

    We met with Joe Alonzo, an engineer from the Morning Star facility. He noted that 90% of the nation’s processed tomatoes come from California and that Morning Star processes more than any other tomato processing plant in California, processing 1,350 tons of tomatoes per hour for 100 days between July – October every year.  The processed tomatoes go on to become ketchup, salsa, and canned tomatoes sold at grocery stores. Morning Star’s philosophy is Self-Management. They encourage innovation from all scales of within the labor hierarchy and several articles have been written about the success of Morning Star’s management style (e.g. Harvard Business Review 2014). They pride themselves in practicing promoting and encouraging innovations, happy employees, saving money, and more than anything, increasing efficiency.

    When the facility receives a truck of freshly picked tomatoes they are inspected for quality and unloaded at the top of a human-made hill. Water and gravity make the unloading process quicker and more energy efficient. The majority of tomatoes are sorted for use in tomato paste and the rest are diced for salsa and canning. Cans of processed tomatoes may sit outside for 1-2 years before they are distributed.

    At each stage of the tour, Tim explained the careful planning, design, and development of systems created to save time, energy, and money. It was difficult to keep track of all the design and engineering improvements they had made over the years.

    We ended the day meeting with Post-doctoral researcher, Nicole Tautges, at the UC Davis Russell Ranch, a 300-acre agricultural research facility. We switched gears from learning about food distribution and processing to going to the source:  soil. The State of California recognizes the importance of healthy microbes and their role in climate change through funding the California Healthy Soils Initiative , a collaborative effort to research the influence and impact of healthy soil. Research shows that healthy soil can improve water infiltration and retention, improve air and water quality, and sequester carbon, thereby reducing greenhouse gases. With this in mind, the facility has researched the long-term impacts that various farming methods have on soil. A key finding is that organic farming methods have shown to improve carbon sequestration and soil biodiversity. Dr. Kate Scow, Professor of Soil Science and Director of Russell Ranch, noted in the Washington Post, “With soil, there’s so much going on that is so close to us, that’s so interesting and multi-faceted, that affects our lives in so many ways, and it’s just lying there beneath our feet.”

    On the second day of the Climate Council trip, we ventured to Los Banos, in the heart of the Central Valley, to visit Bowles Farm. Bowles was a 4-hour drive south from Sacramento along the I-5 freeway, located in the San Joaquin Valley. The San Joaquin Valley is a place of extremes, with some of the richest and most fertile soil in California, the majority of the nation’s produce production, and some of the lowest life expectancy, highest crime rates, and worst air quality in the state. The 11,000-acre Bowles farm grows tomatoes, alfalfa, corn, cotton, melons, and dozens more fruits and vegetables. We met with Michael Cannon, owner and great-great-great grandson of “Cattle King” Henry Miller, one of the largest landowners in the US. Staff in attendance included Curtis Garner, Senior Farm Analyst; Derek Azevedo, Executive Vice President; and Danny Royer, Vice President of Technology. Later, Michael’s son joined in as a representative of the future farmers of California.

    The Bowles team shared in-depth knowledge about the benefits and drawbacks of modern technology, the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our climate, the impact of the drought, and inefficiencies in each stage of the food system. Conversations surrounding sustainability in the urban vernacular and lifestyle is recent, but for Bowles farm it has been a constant. Cannon states, “For us at Bowles Farming Company, ‘sustainability’ is part of everything we do. As a farming family with over 150 years of history, we understand what it takes to be sustainable. For us it is not just a catch phrase, it is a way of life.” They use gravity irrigation methods to save energy, have improved crop diversity in the past decade to increase crop yield and improve soil health (see above), and shared water with neighbors during the drought. They are by no means Luddites, using Landsat satellite images to manage cotton under variable soil conditions and to identify underperforming areas. Bowles uses a combination of technology and deep historical knowledge to manage their operation.

    Our next stop was Salinas, one of the most prominent agricultural communities in the Central Coast where we met with Rick Tomlinson from the Strawberry Commission. Salinas is approximately 2 hours south of San Francisco and one of the only areas that is suitable for strawberry growth. Strawberries are the 3rd most lucrative crop in California, exceeded only by grapes and almonds. This is partly because 80% of the strawberries in the US are grown on the Central Coast. The land is particularly well suited to grow strawberries, with 10x higher yields than Washington.

    Most of the strawberries are sent to US, Canada, and Mexico. A presentation to the Council by the California Strawberry Commission and Naturipe revealed that yet again, the multigenerational family farms stood the test of time. Strawberries, in contrast to tomatoes, are labor intensive and reflect minimal technological innovation. The presentation began with photos showing how strawberries were picked 60 years ago by Japanese-American farmers and how they are picked today: the images looked exactly the same.

    We visited the strawberry fields, which were unexpectedly cold and located just a few minutes from the coast. The strawberries had been recently picked but we still saw large quantities of big, ripe strawberries on the plants. While we did not see anyone picking, we did see how laborious it could be. Even simply walking through the fields, Kishore Varanasi helped several of the council members as we stumbled through the fields losing our balance and some shoes along the way.

    Every place we visited struggled with a variety of different issues but a common theme was labor and the changing politics of immigration. California agriculture has relied on a porous border that allowed legal movement between Mexico and the U.S. This enabled migrant laborers to travel back and forth over the border between seasons. Housing is only a part of the struggles that migrant laborers face. Seth Holmes describes the health impact of the current food systems on migrant laborers in his book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States. General Produce, Morning Star, Bowles, and Naturipe all showed genuine concern for the laborers, their working and living conditions, and expressed a desire to provide good working conditions albeit in short-term, tenuous jobs. General Produce mentioned the impact of the controversial Electronic Logging Device Mandate for truckers that was implemented in January of this year. Morning Star discussed the need for short-term housing for seasonal employees closer to the processing facility. Similarly, laborers at Bowles tended to follow the crops and move when the harvests are ready, requiring flexible, short-term housing. Naturipe’s need for specialized labor for a relatively longer season allowed laborers to stay in longer term housing but at coastal city prices.

    The final day of the trip was a workshop at UC Davis with local experts coming together to discuss the future of food.  What we found was that the issues facing the current food systems are a result of complex interactions between social, environmental, political, and behavioral drivers operating at multiple temporal, economic, and spatial scales. The increasing efficiencies of our modern food system have dislocated and segmented the different nodes so that consumers lack understanding of how their children’s apples made it to the grocery store.

    The urban – rural disconnect became the focus of a charrette on the final day of the trip, a topic that has received much-needed attention in California . Van Alen Executive Director David van der Leer posed the question, “How can designers and farm communities learn from one another in tackling regional challenges and inefficiencies brought about by climate change?”  The Climate Council, consisting mostly of people who live, work, and design in urban areas were asked to bring their expertise from their respective backgrounds, collect their thoughts from what they learned from the visit, and discuss the direction we are headed and opportunities and challenges of our nation’s food system. Gary Sorge from Stantec commented that when he looked up “farmer” on his phone he found oversimplified, outdated, and offensive definitions of the term: “a person who farms; unsophisticated person from a rural area, a yokel.” This begged the question, if the definition of a term such as “farmer” is so outdated, what else about our understanding of agriculture is also outdated and misunderstood? Everyone we met during this trip was articulate, knowledgeable, and concerned about the future of our food; they are far from unsophisticated.

    The discussion brought together diverse thoughts about the issues, each person bringing a different lens and perspective to what they experienced on the tour. Barbara Wilks presented an interesting angle, asking how solutions to housing, labor, and resources could fit under “quality of life” which would include environmental and public health. As we uncover the layers of the food system, it is imperative to reflect on how we view the world and its problems.

    We ended our third day at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Union City, located about 30 miles southeast of San Francisco. We took a half-mile stroll along the creek, experiencing the revitalization of a landscape and providing relief from the long hours spent on the road. Resilient By Design Public Sediment team members Brett Snyder, Adam Marcus, Margaret Ikeda, and Victoria Chau presented the idea of the bay as living infrastructure that was the driving theme for the project The Resilient By Design competition which mirrored New York’s 2013 Rebuild By Design Challenge, an initiative that Van Alen helped lead after Hurricane Sandy. The challenge was to develop and strengthen climate resiliency through collaborative and community-based solutions.

    On our drive home, we drove past a truck filled to the brim with tomatoes. It was a very fitting way to end this enlightening tour.