CityLab Daily: America’s Worst ‘Highway Boondoggles’

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

On the road again: Every year, state and local governments around the United States set their sights on big new highway projects, promising to address the demands of congestion, aging infrastructure, and a growing population. As these projects jockey for federal funds, the transportation needs they’re supposed to be addressing often go unexamined, while the costs to taxpayers grow ever larger.

For the past five years, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has compiled an annual list of the worst “highway boondoggles,” calling out some of the country’s most spendy and questionable roadways. This year’s culprits include a highway expansion in the heart of Portland, a six-lane corridor in Raleigh, a proposal to fatten a Houston highway, and a High Desert Freeway to connect California’s Inland Empire—plus five others. Together, they are set to consume about $25 billion, driven by a formula that encourages driving at the expense of other, less costly transportation alternatives. CityLab’s Laura Bliss digs into the report: Americans Are Spending Billions on Bad Highway Expansions

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

My Quixotic Quest for Quiet in New York City

In a booming city, the din of new construction and traffic can be intolerable. Enter Hush City, an app to map the sounds of silence.   

John Surico

The Squirrel Census Answers a Question You Weren’t Asking

How many squirrels live in New York City’s Central Park? Finding the answer was surprisingly complicated.

Linda Poon

A Water-Stressed World Turns to Desalination

Desalination is increasingly being used to provide drinking water around the globe. But it remains expensive and creates its own environmental problems.

Jim Robbins

A Local Crisis Calls Pete Buttigieg Back to City Hall

For all those nationally who’ve been dazzled by the mayor, the voters of South Bend aren’t satisfied with his response to a fatal police shooting last week.

Edward-Isaac Dovere

How Should We Define the Suburbs?

Based on census boundaries, ways of life, and physical characteristics, respectively, three new definitions offer a composite portrait of American suburbia.

Richard Florida

Pollen Nation

Ariel Aberg-Riger

Bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators are crucial to helping plants reproduce. Without them, about 90 percent of the world’s wild flowers couldn’t survive, nor would many of the plants we rely on for food. But cities are finding ways to protect pollinators, in part through urban gardens they can consider “home.” The efforts don’t have to be citywide: They can take hold in places as small as a backyard, community garden, or windowsill box. And there are all sorts of ways humans can help their flower-loving neighbors thrive. Visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger shares the story: How Birds and Bees Survive in the City

What We’re Reading

L.A.-to-Vegas and back by electric car means eight hours of driving, five hours of charging (New York Times)

Your business-casual office is killing the planet (Outside)

Can coworking companies sell inclusive communities? (Curbed)

How 9 people built an illegal $5 million Airbnb empire in New York (Wired)

Trump postpones ICE’s planned deportation raids in big cities (Vox)

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The Squirrel Census Answers a Question You Weren’t Asking

If you’ve ever wondered how many squirrels live in New York City’s Central Park, there’s finally an answer: 2,373.

That number comes from the first squirrel census of Manhattan’s largest park, conducted by Jamie Allen and more than 300 volunteers who made it their mission to count and observe the rodents living in the 843 acres of green space.

And if you ask Allen why he did this, he’ll say, why not. A humorist and writer, Allen started wondering why no one kept count of squirrels while he was working on a short story eight years ago about his dog’s friendship with neighborhood squirrels in Atlanta.

“We kind of know other animal populations, like rats, in cities,” he says. (The conservative estimate is one for every New Yorker.) “It immediately became comical to me. Squirrels are an animal that we interact with on a daily basis, they’re disease-carrying, and they’re so common that we don’t even pay attention to them.” (It’s worth noting that most of the diseases squirrels carry don’t transmit to humans. Still, don’t go petting them.)

With that, Allen assembled a team of scientists, wildlife experts, and graphic designers and began counting the squirrels in Inman Park in Atlanta. After two counts, the team set their eyes on a more ambitious location: Central Park, which measures more than five times the size of his neighborhood park.

“It was the ultimate challenge,” he says. “And it’s the most famous park in the world.”

Accompanying the census report is a highly detailed map of all of Central Park. (Scott Lowden/The Squirrel Census)

His team didn’t just count the squirrels. Just as the U.S. Census records demographics, housing data, and more, the Squirrel Census is filled with details about where each squirrel was spotted, what color its fur was, and whether there were clusters of them throughout the park.

Overall, the volunteers documented 3,023 squirrel sightings (this number includes squirrels that were likely counted more than once). Of that, 2,472 sightings (about 81 percent) were of gray squirrels, with various mixes of black, white, and cinnamon highlights. Another 393 were primarily cinnamon-colored, and 103 were black. All in all, they recorded 21 variations in fur color.

Volunteers also recorded the squirrels’ behaviors—whether they were running, climbing, eating, or foraging, for example. Some descriptions were colorful, others were clearly just for giggles.

One record logs a squirrel hanging in a tree “like an acrobat, hanging onto branch by its legs upside down.” Another “got bored.”

The project started out as something humorous, but there’s some real science involved. Early in the process, Allen enlisted the help of Donal Bisanzio, who at the time was studying urban epidemics at Emory University. Bisanzio helped him figure out how to tally squirrels—a crucial but complicated task for conducting a census. Squirrels are, well, squirrelly, meaning there’s a good chance that some would be counted more than once, and others might not be counted at all.

The trick is to divide and conquer. They drew a grid of 350 hectares—plots of land measuring 10,000 square meters—over Central Park. Think of them as something like Census tracts. Volunteers then fanned out and conducted two counts, one in the morning and another at night. The Squirrel Sighters, as they were called, spent 20 minutes per count searching for furry subjects, looking up in the trees and down in the bushes, and listening to the clawing and clucking sounds they make. Allen likens it to an Easter egg hunt; some volunteers found many squirrels, others saw none.

Squirrel sightings are represented as stars and constellations in this “celestial” map. (Scott Lowden/The Squirrel Census)

The team found the estimated “abundance number” after feeding their data into a formula popularized in the 1950s and ’60s by leading squirrel biologist Vagn Flyger, which takes into account the uncertainties of counting squirrels.

Then, to help readers visualize exactly where these bushy-tailed creatures live, Allen’s team member Nat Slaughter—a graphic designer and mapmaker—spent two years leading up to the October count creating two intricately detailed maps of Central Park. One maps the park’s terrain, including elevation detail and the various bridges, arches, and connecting paths, as well as points of interest like fountains and statues. That, along with smaller maps used to guide the volunteers, was created with the help of existing maps and of the city’s open data portal.

To include the level of detail he needed, Slaughter says he spent a lot of time in the park, sketching and taking notes, then feeding it into his computer. In doing so, he says, he had to correct for errors in the city’s data on things like elevation. “I was seeing a lot of hills that don’t actually exist in real life,” he says. The city used LIDAR technology, in which a drone or airplane shoots a light at the ground and the length of light is measured to determine elevation. The “phantom hills” are recorded when the drone or airplane mistakes, say, a building’s shadow as a hill.

Each star represents one squirrel sighting in this celestial map, with the colors representing different fur coat shades. (Scott Lowden/The Squirrel Census)

Allen says being part of the project is about more than counting squirrels. In a way, he says, it allows you to experience the park differently than, say, if you were jogging through. As Slaughter told him, “It tunes the person to the environment,” and makes you notice things that you otherwise wouldn’t. Listen closely enough, and you can hear them rustling in the bushes, making the “kukking” noise, or crunching on a nut.

“Squirrels give themselves away by eating,”Allen says. “They’ll just be crunching on a nut and you’re like, ‘What in the world is that?’ And then you look up and there’s a squirrel.”

Asked how the census will further the academic literature on squirrels, Allen makes a clear distinction: This is not a study, and he’s not looking to prove or disprove any hypothesis. What researchers do with the observations is up to them. He says they will eventually release all the data into New York City’s open data portal.

For him, though, the census is simply his way of telling a story—about Central Park and its beady-eyed “citizens.”

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Americans Are Spending Billions on Bad Highway Expansions

Every year, local and state governments around the U.S. set their sights on big new highway projects. Some propose to build fresh six-and eight-lane regional corridors; others to add lanes and fancy interchanges to highways that already exist.

In either case, the rationales are often the same: meet the demands of growing populations, bring aging roads up to modern safety and design standards, and—almost without fail—relieve congestion. But as project bids move through the approval processes to secure coveted federal funds, something that tends to go unexamined is whether mobility needs can be met without them.

For example, the benefits of better maintaining the lanes that already exist are rarely compared to making new ones, even though it’s well documented that U.S. highways and bridges badly need repair to relieve traffic backups and improve safety. Within cities, public transit projects are also rarely considered as an alternative. And some state DOTs have begun to admit what transportation researchers have known for decades: Congestion just doesn’t get better with the addition of lanes. In fact, over the long run, it gets worse, thanks to the principle of induced demand.

Still, as the latest report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows, the American road fixation persists. For the past five years, PIRG has issued annual surveys of the worst “highway boondoggles,” calling out projects proposed around the country that are set to cost billions of tax dollars in spite of serious questions about their merit. This year’s culprits include the $450 million plan to widen a highway through the heart of Portland, a new $2.2 billion six-lane corridor underway in Raleigh, a much-derided $7 billion proposal to fatten 25 miles of Houston interstate, and the rapidly progressing $8 billion High Desert Freeway to interconnect California’s inland empire—plus five others. Together, the nine projects are set to consume about $25 billion.

According to PIRG, what makes these projects especially shame-worthy can easily be found in their own environmental impact reviews. For example, in North Carolina, the Raleigh bypass—projected to be the most expensive highway undertaking in the state’s history—will wipe out critical habitat for threatened mussel species. Texas highway engineers who reviewed the Houston project counted “four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees” inside the zone threatened by construction. In California, the most conservative estimate for the High Desert Freeway’s EIR is that the Palmdale-to-Apple Valley connection “would increase driving by at least 2.5 million vehicle miles traveled each year and increase annual carbon dioxide emissions by 240,000 metric tons per year, equivalent to burning 262 million pounds of coal,” the report states. For a state that is already challenged in meeting its climate goals, that’s going in the wrong direction.

Project proponents would argue that the economic benefits of freshly paved lanes outweigh all those negative impacts. The PIRG report doesn’t deny that the role of highways as critical components of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. But it repeatedly stresses that all of these projects would add new lane space, rather than repair and adapt the roads that are already there. And, of course, each new lane demands ongoing maintenance—at a cost of about $24,000 per mile, every year.

In some cases, it’s not even clear that there’s a real demand for more room: in York County, Pennsylvania, the state plans to spend $300 million to expand a section of I-83, despite the fact that the road generally only backs up in case of an incident. And pedestrian and cyclist groups in increasingly bike-friendly Portland are livid that a $450 million double-wide highway is heading for their downtown.

What PIRG doesn’t address, though, is the larger question of why states remain so committed to new construction over other interventions in the first place. Congestion relief is always a popular political theme, of course, but there’s a structural dimension, too: Federal funding formulas favor states with bigger populations, more lanes, and more driving. Conversely, states that reduce driving by ramping up transportation alternatives or by bunching together jobs and housing tend to lose out on cash. “It’s no mystery why states spend too much of their money building new lane-miles, new roads, and new bridges at the expense of repair and everything else,” Steven Davis, a director of communications at Transportation For America, a think tank devoted to local transportation policy, recently wrote in a recent blog post. “The financial payout for states is based on increasing driving as much as possible.”

New roads and highways are surely merited in certain places, but a system rigged in favor of cars at all costs—especially in the face of rising transportation emissions—seems like the biggest boondoggle of all.

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Behavior Change Case Study: Remix

The Remix team brings a multidisciplinary approach to their change management work, which helps them complement municipal government clients, whose stakeholders tend to be siloed into separate departments. “We’re fairly unique in the software industry, because our team is blended,” Tiffany explains. One half of their team is comprised of transportation practitioners and policy experts, and the other half is made up of software developers and designers. “We bring to transportation planning the culture of co-creation and fast iteration that is typically found in the software industry,” she says, “so, we go into a room having both those muscles to flex.”

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My Quixotic Quest for Quiet in New York City

The corner of Canal and Hudson Street at rush hour may be the loudest place in New York City. That’s when the daily share of its 1.26 million monthly vehicles—1.2 million cars, nearly 13,000 buses, and close to 85,000 trucks, as of March—slug through the Holland Tunnel, spilling out onto tight Manhattan corridors built for traffic half the size. Mix that honking, yelling, clattering, and rumbling with the din of constant construction (there are nine active permits within a three-block vicinity, per the city’s active construction map) and infrastructure upgrades, and voilà, you have one noisy mess.

At this intersection you can often experience the perfectly normal New York thing of not being able to hear the person walking next to you. When I approached on a recent morning, I saw a few businessmen start a conversation, and then pause with visual gestures, choosing to be off of Canal before resuming.

This seemed like a good spot to take a noise survey, which is what I was doing, on Hush City, an open-source app that seeks to map out the quiet (and not-so-quiet) corners of cities worldwide. I wanted to see if I could find one here, of all places. So I walked about 100 feet to Freeman Plaza East, a newly made oasis of green in a sea of metal. The decibel level here, according to my iPhone: 59.2 dbA, about six decibels above the World Health Organization (WHO) standard for daytime noise. But, as New York noise goes, not bad. I took some photos of cars and trucks, all trying to turn northward with the help of a sole crossing guard. I was then asked to describe my reception of the sound on Canal itself—I chose words like “unpleasant” and “anger.” Then I submitted my entry, adding my first-hand report from the park to those from other Hush City users.

The idea behind Hush City is that users can log on to find out where to seek refuge from the blare of urban living, in cities from Louisville, Kentucky, to Tehran, Iran. It’s Yelp, but for serenity. For instance, a user can now search near Canal Street, see that it’s “stressing,” and hear exactly what I heard. In “the city that never sleeps”—even now as I write this, late at night in my apartment, I hear an idling diesel engine from a truck on the streets outside, a car alarm going off, someone coughing downstairs—it can read like a treasure map, with the prize being sweet relief of the city’s sonic assault.

WHO has designated urban noise a serious environmental stressor and public health risk. It’s correlated with insomnia, cognitive and hearing impairments, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and depression. And, like so many other pollutants, its ill effects tend to be concentrated on low-income residents. WHO has repeatedly called on cities and countries everywhere to make reducing noise a serious priority. But in an urban center like Manhattan, where the conviviality and amenities that we seek out often come with racket attached, that can be a challenge.

Gotham is getting louder. Changing consumer patterns has unleashed an unprecedented number of FedEx and UPS trucks on cities; below 60th Street in Manhattan alone, over 120,000 packages are delivered daily, according to the city. The rise in for-hire vehicles has compounded the city’s ancient scourge of congestion, buttressed by cheap gas and economic growth. That economy is also feeding a skyscraper boom, a condo boom, and an office-space boom, all demanding a concussive onslaught of infrastructure investments. Everywhere you go, it seems, piles are being driven, sidewalks jackhammered, walls demo’ed. As the New York Times reports, nearly 40 percent of residential real estate listings in the city are less than 525 feet from new construction. Peace and quiet, it seems, will be in increasingly short supply.

I first met Dr. Antonella Radicchi, the creator of the app and head of the Hush City Mobile Lab at the Technical University of Berlin, by chance. She had reached out after I tweeted about the de Blasio administration’s “People Priority Zone” pilot program for downtown Manhattan, which aims to pedestrianize a large swath of the Financial District, where I often work. She was in New York for research, mapping out the quiet areas of Manhattan and beyond, and was curious to see if the mayor’s plan had any noise implications. So we took to the streets.

Radicchi, an Italian-born architect and self-described “soundscape urbanist” trained in Florence, proved to be an enthusiastic explorer of downtown Manhattan, taking videos and notes of anything noisy that came up. As we sidled down one of the area’s Dutch-era roads, making room for cars and delivery trucks along squeezed sidewalks, Radicchi asked me what I would define as “noise.” Traffic was my first choice, I said, as well as any sort of machinery—from construction, maintenance, or otherwise. People, lesser so: I work at home across the street from an elementary school amidst the cheerful white noise of playing children screaming at lunchtime. It’s the car alarm going off outside that ultimately unnerves me.

“I would recommend using the terms ‘sound’ and ‘acoustic environment,’ and use the term ‘noise’ when a negative connotation is implied in the discourse,” she told me. There is a difference, she continued, between the human sounds of urban living—the happy hum of conversation in outdoor cafes, the ping of an aluminum bat from a softball game in the park, the throb of distant music from a car radio—and the mechanical din of development, which hops up the decibel scale quick. She referenced a distinction initially made by R. Murray Schafer, who wrote the seminal 1977 book, The Soundscape.

“The first derive from nature: like water, animal and human sounds,” she explained, “whereas the latter”—which Schafer called the “Post-Industrial Soundscape”—“are a byproduct of man, and were introduced in parallel with technical development starting from the 19th century.”

I asked Radicchi what she experienced during her research visit to New York, which, I imagine, is a lot louder than Berlin. Many of her friends joked, she said, that living in Greenwich Village must keep her up at night with its revelry—the shouts of inebriated college students at night, partygoers on 6th Avenue, tourists. But in fact, she didn’t mind them at all; she had no problem falling asleep, or working, with street life on in the background. Instead, she was bothered by a familiar culprit: traffic. The Ubers. The delivery trucks. The private cars. The tour buses. The helicopters. Everything.

Although she was surprised by the number of quiet areas she found here—mostly in pocket parks, and POPS, or privately-owned public spaces, she said—this growing critical mass of traffic can infiltrate our small city sanctuaries. I experienced this myself using the Hush City app: After my noisy sojourn to Canal and Hudson, I was aching for solitude, and took a walk to a point on the map described as “relaxing.” That was James J. Walker Park, just a few blocks away, where I found the ideals of Schafer’s natural sounds: birds chirping, kids running around the playground. The only intrusion? A parade of honking cars, stuck behind a street sweeper on the adjoining street.

Back in the Financial District, Radicchi and I stopped in front of the thunderous Wall Street heliport, the future home of Uber Copter. The ceaseless roar of chopper blades joined the horns from the ferry terminal to create a cacophony that is bound to intensify in the coming months, if helicopter traffic grows. She remarked that noise seems to be an afterthought in New York City planning, even though the city is home to an updated Noise Code, landmark studies on noise’s effect on children by Dr. Arline Bronzaft, and specific “quiet zones” in its parks. In the recent debate over congestion pricing, nearly all the discussion focused on reducing traffic and funding public transit—few mentioned the soothing benefits it could bring to the city’s soundscape.

“I was surprised that New York City’s Green Deal does not explicitly mention environmental noise in its action programs and plans,” Radicchi said. “Despite noise being the second most harmful stressor after air pollution affecting human health, quality of life, biodiversity and the environment.”

Things are little different in Europe. In 2002, the EU’s Environmental Noise Directive obliged cities with over 100,000 inhabitants to create and update noise maps, noise action plans, and strategies to protect quiet areas every five years. But thus far, she argued, there has been no proper method for implementation. “How to identify and eventually protect quiet areas is still an open issue at the EU policy level,” Radicchi said. She hopes that Hush City can be a way to fill that knowledge gap.

But New York already has several tools at its disposal. The “People Priority Zones,” along with other Vision Zero interventions to increase traffic safety, is capable of transforming high-traffic—and high-noise—areas into places where talking-and-walking pedestrians could thrive. From a design perspective, the city’s Parks Without Borders initiative, which aims to physically open park space up to more people, could also bring a measure of noise relief. And congestion pricing, set to debut after December 2020, will help “thin out streets that have become strangled by traffic,” Radicchi said.

New York City, and New Yorkers, are likely to always remain loud, and that’s as it should be: The human roar of the metropolis is why so many of us gravitate to it. Great urban spaces buzz with sound, from Times Square to the Piazza del Campo in Siena. But they don’t have to be so noisy. Expanding equitable access to natural urban sounds would bring all kinds of public health benefits, and that would raise a greater awareness of their importance in our daily urban lives, Radicchi said. It also lends itself to preserving their vitality.

Walking from James J. Walker Park, I made my way to a point that the app described as “lively,” and it couldn’t have picked a better spot: the Stonewall National Monument in Christopher Park, in front of the Stonewall Inn. The sun shone on the white statues, two men and two women, that commemorate this milestone in the LGBTQ rights movement. Tour groups filed in and out of the small space, learning about what happened here 50 years ago, and everything after. Someone set up a camera, another fed birds with a muffin.

It wasn’t exactly quiet, but it was quiet enough; people gathered to take part in the city, and just be—jackhammers be damned.

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CityLab Daily: Can Historic Preservation Cool Down a Hot Neighborhood?

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Too hot: On its face, historic preservation is all about keeping old buildings intact. In practice, it has something of a reputation for displacement or exclusion, since landmarking a neighborhood can boost housing values and rents. But what if it could be a tool for protecting affordability in a place that’s rapidly gentrifying?

That’s the idea behind a plan to give a historic landmark designation to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Home to the largest community of Mexican Americans in the Midwest, Pilsen’s cultural vibe and low rents have drawn a wave of newcomers. But even before Forbes declared it one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world, thousands of Hispanic residents had already left.

The city has proposed landmarking Pilsen’s main corridor with a plan that includes affordability requirements, protecting not just buildings (and the area’s famous murals), but also the district’s culture and current residents. “Change is good, and the landmark district is likely good, but it all depends on who is directing that change,” says one longtime resident. On CityLab: Can Historic Preservation Cool Down a Hot Neighborhood?

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Job Density Is Increasing in Superstar Cities and Sprawling in Others

A study finds job density increased in the U.S. over a 10-year period. But four cities: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle, accounted for most of it.

Richard Florida

How Birds and Bees Survive in the City

Pollinators—the wildlife that shuffle pollen between flowers—are being decimated. But they may still thrive with enough help from urban humans.

Ariel Aberg-Riger

No, New York’s New Rent Control Won’t Target Small Landlords

Previously unreleased data shows that large landlords who own multiple buildings have a stranglehold over housing—and evictions—in New York City.

Sophie Kasakove

Can This Flawed Brutalist Plaza in Boston Be Fixed?

The chain-link fences are finally down at Boston’s long-closed Government Services Center, thanks to some clever design updates.

Mark Byrnes

How New York’s Media Covered the Stonewall Riots

Major dailies gave a megaphone to the police, while alternative outlets served as an important platform for those without a voice.

Chad Painter


(Robbi Bishop-Taylor)

Today marks the summer solstice, the longest day of the year for folks north of the equator. This fanciful map shows how the setting sun casts shadows across the United States on the solstice, presenting a familiar landscape in a way few have seen before. Using NASA topography data, the map shades in where hills and mountains cast a shadow when the sun is just 1.5 degrees above the horizon. Take a look in this story from the CityLab archives: How the U.S Looks in Shadow on the Summer Solstice

What We’re Reading

Ten cities ask the European Union for help fighting Airbnb expansion (The Guardian)

Slow, empty buses are a huge climate liability (Los Angeles Times)

How Elizabeth Warren would try to ban private prisons (Politico)

Refugees in a Minnesota city face a backlash (New York Times)

Driverless cars are coming. We’ll miss the thrill of the ride. (Vox)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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A Brazilian Vision Blooms Anew in the Bronx

As the designer of the wavy, world-famous pavements of Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach and a frequent collaborator with architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994) is hardly an obscure figure. But his stock has risen in the United States over the past few years, with a spate of exhibitions and books exploring his vast body of work.

Burle (pronounced bur-lee) Marx is remembered primarily for his nearly 3,000 landscape projects, in which he combined an artist’s instinct for abstraction with a naturalist’s deep love of trees and plants, especially species native to Brazil. There was seemingly nothing that the protean Burle Marx couldn’t (and didn’t) do: At his lush estate outside of Rio, he painted, drew, made prints, designed textiles, played the piano, and cultivated thousands of plants, some of them specimens he had collected on trips into the rainforest. (Numerous species have been named after Burle Marx, such as the flower Heliconia hirsuta burle marxii.)

This summer, the New York Botanical Garden has mounted its largest-ever exhibition, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx, on view through September 29. Instead of recreating Burle Marx’s gardens, Brazilian Modern hinges on what NYBG calls a “horticultural tribute” to him—three gardens designed by his Miami-based landscape-architect protégé, the (aptly named) Raymond Jungles. Palms, bromeliads, elephant’s-ears, staghorn ferns, water lilies: Burle Marx’s favorite plants are here, summoning the tropics for visitors eager to escape New York for an hour or two.

CityLab talked to the exhibition’s guest curator Edward J. Sullivan about the artist and his legacy. The conservation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think Burle Marx is being, if not rediscovered, then celebrated in the U.S. these past few years?

There are several ways to answer. One is the timeliness of looking at an artist who was as important as a garden architect and architect, a sculptor, a painter, a musician—he studied all of these things.

Roberto Burle Marx painting in the loggia of his sítio. (Claus Meyer/Tyba)

But what was most important to him was conservation activism. Shortly after the military coup [in Brazil in 1964], he began working with the government, in order to gain an official platform for his activism. At a moment when the planet is in danger, and Brazil specifically has all sorts of challenges with a new government that’s, like the one here, not paying any attention to or undermining the efforts to combat things like global warming—I think that has captured the imagination of many people.

Another reason is that Burle Marx had, particularly in the later years of his lifetime, very strong relationships with colleagues and institutions in the United States. He first came to the U.S. in the 1940s, invited by the architect Richard Neutra. Then he continuously came back. He was a regular feature in this country.

I was delighted in 2016 when the Jewish Museum did a panoramic exhibition. This [new exhibition] is in a way zeroing in or focusing in on specific aspects of Burle Marx that only the New York Botanical Garden could actually do, by creating a variety of spaces, inside and outside, and focusing on the types of plants he used.

How did Burle Marx’s approach differ from the styles of garden design that Americans are more accustomed to, such as formal French or the English cottage style?

From the very beginning of his career as a garden architect, he decided he would only concentrate on Brazilian plants. Up until that time, wealthy Brazilians would want to have an English garden or French garden, with plants that were not native to Brazil. He thought that was both pretentious and ignoring the extraordinary natural richness of Brazil.

Unlike most garden architects, because usually you think of them as someone who works for a private client—and he did that, of course—he did a great deal of work that was inflected by the urban environment. A huge swath of Rio’s seaside is a garden that is not really what you’d call a garden; it was a conceptual landscape built on landfill. This huge Flamengo Park unites the city airport, Santos Dumont, with [Botafogo Bay].

He was intensely concerned with the human and botanical environment as forming a healthy, pleasant place for human interactivity to happen, in a city. That really distinguishes him.

Beachgoers walk along Burle Marx’s pavements on the Avenida Atlântica at Copacabana in 2016. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

What was the role of his estate (sítio) in his career?

Beginning in the 1940s, he lived in what is now called the Sitio Burle Marx, a public monument as of 1985, although he continued to live there [until his death in 1994]. That was really his laboratory. He brought all his signature plants and trees, and [studied them] in collaboration—he was constantly collaborating. His team at the garden at the Sitio, their children or grandchildren are still working there.

Why do Burle Marx’s gardens pair so well with Modernist and Brutalist architecture?

Probably two reasons. [Like] the International Style and the influence of Corbusier, out of which grew Niemeyer, his approach to the garden—to create these gardens with only tropical plants native to Brazil—was itself very radical. There was a synergy; the radical achievement of [Modernist] architects was paralleled by the experiments of Burle Marx.

The 1950s Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, a collaboration between Burle Marx and architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy. (Donatas Dabravolskas/Shutterstock)

The other thing, I think, is that when you are in a Burle Marx garden at a Modern building—[like] the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, often thought of as one of the greatest examples of Brazilian Brutalism—it mitigates the starkness of the concrete and the starkness of the building, and works in harmony. If you’re in this garden, facing the Guanabara Bay, in front of this hulking but fascinating building, it’s this symphony of soft and hard, green and gray. It makes perfect sense if you’re standing in the garden. It adds a note of sensuousness to an otherwise willfully stark type of architecture.

How would he have felt about the continued deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and the environmental policies of Brazil’s current government?

I think he would probably rework or revisit his sometimes scathing writings and lectures that he gave before [Brazil’s] federal council. If he were offered a position with the current government, he might take it, in order to promote, as he did in the ’60s and early ’70s, his agenda of conservation activism.

Burle Marx during a botanical expedition in Ecuador in 1974. (Photograph by Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo, Archive of Luiz Antonio Correia de Araújo)

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How Birds and Bees Survive in the City

Editor’s note: For National Pollinator Week, visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger looks at the birds and the bees in our cities and how they may still thrive with enough help from today’s urban humans.

[Native Plant Finder]

Further Reading:

Image credits: Rawpixel, James Ellsworth De Kay, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau, Robert Havell, Sydenham Edwards, John Lindley

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Can This Flawed Brutalist Plaza in Boston Be Fixed?

A vast public plaza inside one of the more polarizing Brutalist complexes in the U.S., designed by architect Paul Rudolph, is reopening after being closed for more than a decade.

On Thursday, Rosalin Acosta, the Massachusetts Secretary of Employment Labor and Workforce Development, is hosting an official unveiling of Hurley Plaza at Boston’s Government Services Center (not to be confused with the nearby Government Center, which has a more substantial has come up with some clever interventions that play off Rudolph’s trademark corduroy-concrete facade treatments, in an effort to bring the plaza’s most dangerous spaces up to code. Wide gaps between the plaza and the building facade (see above) lead down to the parking garage below, making for a surprisingly easy fall. “No one thought it would be a bad idea,” Moore said dryly of the original designers.

ICON was the third firm to take a crack at what seems to be an easy project on its surface. But design integrity and budget constraints made it quite a challenge. Moore devised a series of curved steel panels that add significant height to the edges of the plaza and a contemporary take on the Great Society facade, with circular cuts in each panel that look like they could almost fit over the concrete ridges just behind them. “So much of it is a layering, a backdrop with clear moments to see the concrete architecture,” explained Moore. “We couldn’t get out of making it more visible, but we minimized our object as much as possible.”

Original concrete bollards, used over the years as makeshift trash cans and toilets by plaza visitors, have been rearranged and turned into planters. (Stephen Moore)

Original concrete bollards, used over the years as makeshift trash cans and toilets by plaza visitors, have been turned into planters and are now rearranged around a main entrance to the Lindemann Center, establishing a predictable pedestrian flow in and out of the building by artfully blocking off a narrow and potentially unsafe section.

Now that the plaza is up to code, Moore is eager to do more. “I am hoping to make the big pitch for a subsequent stage of repairs being the ‘grand stair’ that would re-connect the plaza to the city from all sides, as per the original public intent,” Moore said in a recent email.

Inside the Lindemann Center. (Mark Byrnes)

While the solutions for the plaza appear simple, what should be done with the intensely dramatic, expressive spaces inside is unclear. The interior of the complex includes wildly curved staircases and rippling walls “which workers finished by hand, first casting the concrete in ribbed wooden molds before using bush hammers to chip away at the aggregate,” explained Madeline Bilis in Boston Magazine in 2017.

Clients roam within the center’s confusing corridors and abrasively textured interior walls, but its chapel has been closed off for years—a shame since the natural light that pours in from above the concrete pulpit creates an almost spiritual effect. One function of the complex is providing mental-health services, which has long been complicated by Rudolph’s uncompromising architecture. In a scathing critique of its design in relation to the needs of its vulnerable users, architecture writer Philip Nobel once wrote that Rudolph made the building ‘insane’ in order to express the insanity within.”

Eventually, the state will have to do something about the years of deferred maintenance inside the complex, whether it wants to or not. “However reviled it may be as an object of art, however many flaws it may have,” Moore said, “it is an amazing piece of architecture.” For now, a modestly improved entrance that smooths out some of Rudolph’s trouble spots will do.

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