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Taking Back the Neighborhood ... and the World
Profile: Len Hopper, FASLA

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

Len Hopper, FASLA, Past President of ASLA, Past President of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, author, Professor at CCNY and Columbia University, multiple award winner and Senior Associate at Mark K. Morrison Associates, LTD.
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Len Hopper, FASLA, Past President of ASLA and Past President of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, is a man who has studied the ways people can live together in harmony and safety. He has applied his talents and strengths to making it possible for people to regain control of their neighborhoods, their cities and their democracies. The results have been amazing.

The new playground at P.S. 41 on Staten Island has something for everyone: spaces to relax and read a book, as well as areas to exercise, jog, play tennis and shoot hoops. The site features a student garden area and a rainforest theme. "This space essentially makes P.S. 41 a school without walls where our classroom instruction can take place in a park-like setting," said P.S. 41 Principal Elise Feldman.
Photo credit: Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA

Len Hopper, who has been instrumental in changing some of New York City's most distressed neighborhoods into garden sites, says he became a landscape architect quite by accident. ''In 1971, I was in my second year of architecture school at CCNY. I was wandering down the second floor hallway on my way to go home, when I heard something that sounded kind of interesting going on in one of the classrooms. I looked in and saw there was some kind of presentation going on, so I went in and took a seat in the back. The presentation was being given by Paul Friedberg, who was trying to get students interested in a new program that was to start in the fall, the Urban Landscape Architecture Program.''

''I didn't know much about landscape architecture, if anything at all, and I wouldn't have associated its application in the urban environment. When Paul was done showing slides (yes, slides) of all the work he had done, urban plazas throughout the nation with thousands of people using and enjoying the spaces he had created, I knew right then, that was what I wanted to do. Sign me up! Some 15 years later, I went back to school and graduated from the City University of New York's Masters in Urban Design Program, then headed by Jonathan Barnett. I find the two degrees extremely complimentary.''

"One of the projects I'm working on now is on Fishers Island between Connecticut and Long Island," says Hopper. "It includes a long, linear trail that weaves through the woods with a vehicular roadway and a recreation path. Here we are dealing with significant environmental concerns, such as preservation of wetlands and not being destructive to the surrounding woods. It is like being a born again landscape architect. It completes a spectrum of the profession that I haven't had the experience of working with before."
Photo credits Mark K. Morrison

Hopper worked as a landscape architect for 30 years with the New York City Housing Authority. ''I was heading a group of about 20 extremely talented and dedicated landscape architecture professionals. The greatest challenges were dealing with the density of the public housing developments in a way that looked to humanize the open spaces, and address problems of drug activity and related violence. Another challenge, in addition to dealing with those problems, was gaining the resident's trust. They were promised many things, many times. But we developed a meaningful participatory design approach that involved the residents in the design of their open space.''

As more and more cities break themselves into distinct neighborhoods represented by different races, immigrant groups, educational levels, classes and land values, the separations become vaster and more destructive. ''Bridging these separations to break down barriers, both physical and social, in a way that holistically integrates communities is a role that landscape architects can make a significant contribution towards,'' he says.

"One of the most important influences in my career is Jimmy Carter, who I had the honor to meet with at his boyhood home in Plains when I was President of ASLA," remembers Hopper. "He is a man of humble beginnings, strong beliefs and a conviction in doing what is right to provide a better life for all people."

''We were able to develop our own strategies for security and site design,"''es Hopper. ''The ones developed later evolved into strategies that are similar to the ones you use to thwart terrorist activities. There are over 350 public housing developments throughout New York City's five boroughs, and many are centrally located within neighborhoods that have undergone a revitalization. Integrating our public housing developments into these communities and making them positive contributors to the urban fabric is an important effort.''

''Studies showed that we were able to achieve a reduction in crime of up to an additional 25 percent where we had a comprehensive design intervention as opposed to those developments that did not.''

''In order for democracy to flourish, many of these same issues and objectives need to be pursued on a global scale with the objective to create a richer and safer global community. The current focus on site security design addresses these issues head-on in an approach that respects our desire to be a free and open society.''

"'Before' and 'After' pictures show a total transformation in the P.S. 221 school yard re-done in conjunction with TPL," explains Hopper. "The asphalt was replaced with educational and sports oriented paving while new shade structures and play equipment were added. Most recently, TPL and MKMA have begun to incorporate additional changes with an eye towards sustainability, such as permeable pavements, alternative tree pit details and stormwater runoff."

One of Hopper's defining moments regarding the issues of security came in 2001. ''On September 11th I was working for the New York City Housing Authority across the street and maybe 60 or 70 feet from the North Tower. We heard the plane go right over our building and couldn't understand what it was. The noise got louder and louder. We heard this huge explosion and rushed to the window about a hair after the plane went into the building--but we couldn't understand what had happened. There was a fair sized hole, but the building was so big you couldn't relate to it because of the scale. After some minutes, the flames and smoke increased. We heard the radio report that a plane had hit the tower, but based on scale we thought it was a smaller plane.''

''People were hanging out the windows, waving to signal they were trapped. After 20 to 30 minutes, we saw people jumping past us. It was so close, to this day we can all remember what they were wearing, the couple holding hands as they jumped. What kind of awful choice do you have to make that pushes you to jump 100 stories? The entire experience was unreal. It still is. It's hard to believe it was an actually reality.''

"Interestingly for me, it is always about the people and the people who use and need the spaces," says Hopper. "One of the opportunities I have had since moving into the private sector is working as a design consultant for the New York City Parks Department on projects like the Story Playground in the Bronx. It is very satisfying to be able to take public open spaces that have deteriorated over time and transform them into vibrant community activity centers transformed with play equipment, spray showers, seating, tracks, trees and plantings."

Top: Photo Credit: Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA
Bottom: Photo Credit: Mark K. Morrison

''At that time, I was president of the ASLA, and although everyone was trying to get back to business as usual, it was pretty clear to me that wasn't going to happen. I suggested canceling the upcoming ASLA meeting, and ultimately that's what we did. We received some criticism for that, but having put together and explained my experience in New York City in a letter to the general membership, there was a better understanding as to why we couldn't continue on with the annual meeting. It was very comforting to receive so many kind comments from landscape architects and landscape architectural firms and organizations throughout the country and the world as we tried to share as much of our feelings and information as possible.''

''Everybody was looking for some way to volunteer their time to do something meaningful and helpful. The opportunity I had was to look at Security Design and what the impact of 9/11 would mean in the future. That was my way to give back, contribute and raise the discussion on security design.''

''The knee jerk reaction was to put up barriers, because 80 percent of terrorist attacks were conducted by car bombs. We were trying to get as much done as possible in a short period of time. Initially, concrete dry wells and other grotesque heavy objects were put up to protect the Capital, the White House and other national symbols. I tried to raise the discussion from the 'temporary' to a more permanent solution. In my capacity as president of ASLA, I was able to bring a diverse group of professionals together to look at what our response should be in the post 9/11 world. We convened the Security Design Coalition which held symposia with input from all the disciplines to look at ways to make security design synonymous with good design. There were so many contributors to the discussion with the result being a guide for all the various elements that factor into a good, permanent security design.''

A year ago the schoolyard at I.S. 62-The Ditmas School, was pockmarked and cracked, with only one bent basketball hoop and a crumbling, free-standing wall for handball. The school had to ban football games at recess because children were getting hurt. However, it was in constant use; for example, Jamaican and Pakistani immigrants used the yard to play cricket. Trust for Public Land and MKMA led a three-month participatory design process with students, community members and staff from the community sponsors to design this new playground to better serve the needs of the children and the community.

''Because of my experience with the NYC Housing Authority, I was perfectly positioned to use the expertise I'd gained.'' Hopper points out, ''What you see now is that security design has become an overlay to almost every public project--much the same way that ADA accessibility is included everywhere today. What the design professions have been able to address is that security is a concern that needs to be integrated with good building and site design. They don't have to be mutually exclusive. You see aesthetically pleasing elements included, enhancing the experience of the pedestrian and building occupants while enhancing the security that is required. It was very important to have the conversation and the dialog in order to keep people focused on the permanent future of built security measures, and that it was unacceptable to keep temporary measures in place.''

At PS 87, a 1935 school in Wakefield, Bronx, NY, students discuss solar orientation and prepare to measure their schoolyard. The student input was part of the development process. Points out Hopper, "We've created a 10-week program where the kids actually work on the design for their playground. The design itself is a learning environment that includes factors such as measuring, math and scale that would normally come out of a book. But the young people are learning and applying them to what ultimately gets built. As a result, these skills actually become more meaningful."
Photo Credit: Jennifer Nitzky, ASLA

''You are, after all, looking at our nation's most valuable democratic symbols and temporary measures not only take away from their importance, in some cases the wrong security measures might instill fear rather then a sense of security. We shouldn't be living in a fortress. We should design our buildings and open space in an approach that shows we're living in an open and democratic society.''

Powerful Influences

''When I was at the New York City Housing Authority, they were very influenced by Oscar Newman. I started in 1978, and Newman's theories of defensible space were just becoming popular. Newman's theory was developed in the early 1970s, and he wrote his first book on the topic, Defensible Space in 1972. The book contains a study from New York that pointed out that higher crime rates existed in high-rise apartment buildings than in lower-rise housing developments. This, he concluded, was because residents felt no control or personal responsibility for an area occupied by so many people. Throughout his study, Newman focused on explaining his ideas on social control, crime prevention, and public health in relation to community design.''

P.S. 123 is a diverse pre-K through fifth grade school with more than 600 students. Students and community members designed the new playground, and the group had a high interest in including both art and environmental education elements. "People need the contact with nature and they benefit from the restorative aspects of that. To stress how important that is to people in their everyday lives, all you have to do is see how people heal more quickly in hospitals if they can see nature, how teenagers and young people respond to education in an outdoor environment, and how workers are happier when they have access to outdoor spaces."

''We had a couple of pilot installations that, although not successful, provided a basis for change. CPTED, 'Crime Prevention through Environmental Design', was a multi-disciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior. Using the same building demographics in large developments that we had created during a design intervention, we ended up with crime reduction rates of 25 percent more than developments that didn't use them. That was after factoring in the reduction of crime in the entire city.''

Protection from violence and other criminal activities largely depends on the vigilance of fellow citizens. ''There are several factors that point to a space that is not defensible. You need the perpetrator, the victim and a place conducive to committing the crime. By taking the ''conducive place'' out of the equation, the statistics show that the crime does not take place, nor does displacement occur. And studies show that what affects the site also affects the immediate area, resulting in real crime reduction.''

''At the NYC Housing Authority, in the mid to early 70s during a fiscal crisis, one of the first things that fell by the wayside was maintenance. The fences fell down, and all the planted areas were paved over. From building edge to building edge, you lost the delineation of spaces and circulation routes. Many developments became a vast no-man's land. Cars were racing through, there were short cuts leading into and out of the development and drive through muggings. I went on patrol with police, and the entire labyrinth was incredibly hard to control. If you were chasing a perpetrator, they would run around a building corner and you didn't know if they went into a lobby, out the back entrance, up the stairs, to the roof, or were just waiting right around the corner of the building, potentially with a gun. Cars were haphazardly parked next to play areas and sharing walks where women were pushing strollers and shopping carts.''

Humanizing Space

''By creating spaces that oriented them back to the residents, it was easier for them to get to various activities and transportation stops. Circulation paths and low level plantings keep a buffer around the building. By limiting vehicular access you are creating a situation where the outdoor space is an extension of the residents' homes, not the city streets.''

''I did a few studies that I reference back to the 80's War on Drugs, where the major tools were education, weapons and law enforcement. It seemed odd to me that we allowed the enemy to control the battlefield, which gave them all the advantage. To make those efforts more effective, they must be dealt with comprehensively.''

The foundations of citizenship are rooted in sharing. ''When you have more circulation and people doing positive things in a space, you feel very comfortable going into that space. Many of the developments are on super blocks with big open campuses. Success is when people feel safe enough to cut through the development to get to the store, their school or the subway. That means you have succeeded because they don't have to walk out of their way. There are residents sitting outside their buildings, tending to their gardens, watching their children in the play area, at the day care center, and they are watching. They can see you and that is what makes you feel safer because security is being able to see as well as being seen. If you have visibility you can make good choices.''

The mostly vacant schoolyard at M.S. 210 has been transformed into a new $1 million community playground with help from The Trust for Public Land (TPL), community sponsor Cross Island YMCA Beacon, and a design team made up of students, teachers, parents and members of the community. "We worked with the residents in a meaningful participatory design process." says Hopper. "They were able to take a proprietary ownership of the site so that positive activities were ongoing throughout the space. "

''The crack epidemic in 1985 started a slide into crime-ridden streets and neighborhoods in New York. However, most of the people were good working people trying to live their lives and raise their children. But, as is often the case, it takes just a small number of people to ruin a community. By re-designing the open spaces, we empowered the good people to take control. The difference is dramatic. A great example was in New York City's Union Square. When the park barriers went down, security went up.''

''Working largely on school yards, with Trust for Public Land and a recent program by the Parks Department of New York and Mayor Bloomberg, the goal is having a community open space within easy walking distance for each resident. Every project that involves landscape architecture deals on many levels on a wide range of issues, such as combating obesity, providing restorative environments, relieving stress, handling stormwater runoff, making healthier tree pits that allow water and air to permeate adding to the urban tree canopy and mitigating the negative impact of the heat island effect. There are so many things that need to come together, the creative part is identifying all the opportunities you can and taking advantage of them. This works for the neighborhoods on so many levels because the spaces have now become a community resource.''

Evolving Baseline Principles

''One of the things I feel particularly strongly about is that when we talk about sustainability, we often focus on the environment. But the important fact is that human sustainability is just as important. We cannot ignore the things we as humans need to sustain ourselves.

I have been serving on the Sustainable Sites Initiative Technical Sub-Committee that deals with human health and well-being, and it confirms so many of the things I've dealt with for years. People need open spaces to deal with the stresses of life.''

''There are so many aspects to outdoor spaces, and that have to be explored and incorporated into environments where people live, work and play much more than they are now. We now put gardens in the TPL projects in school yards so that faculty can incorporate nature and the site design into the curriculum. The designs also include an outdoor classroom. The children learn better, are more attentive, and if what they're learning about is actually available on the site, we're hitting a home run.''

"The Red Hook Housing Project is one of my favorites because it represents the most dramatic change, from a nationally visible (Life Magazine, 1986) symbol of drugs, violence and crime transformed into a safer housing environment for the residents. It is a good example of how important landscape architecture is in the urban environment and the positive change the profession can have. It was with a great deal of joy and satisfaction that Red Hook Houses went from the Life magazine article to being featured on the front page of Newsday, for recording zero homicides in 2003."

Len Hopper has been involved in many aspects of the profession in his career: A landscape architect in both the private and the public sector; An author, ''A Landscape Design Approach to Security Design'' Wiley, Editor-in-Chief of ''Landscape Architectural Graphic Standards'' and the upcoming ''LGS Field Guide to Hardscapes and Softscapes,'' first edition; Leadership positions in ASLA, which led to serving as President of ASLA; as well as being on the Executive Board of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, as well as its President.

''We cannot allow those that are driven by profit and self-serving interests to steer where our environmental efforts are going. It is our responsibility as landscape architects and long time stewards of the earth to lead the sustainability effort. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and watch. Although as a profession we've done that in the past, this is far too important. We all need to step up and contribute across the spectrum of our entire profession, bringing together those with expertise that can complement our own, and lead the global effort towards environmental sustainability.''

''Of the people who have influenced me most (in addition to Jimmy Carter who taught me there is more to do and more to contribute), I would of course have to say Paul Friedberg would be one. As someone who literally turned me on to the profession, I would not be doing what I'm doing today, if not for that career changing presentation that I stumbled into. (Editor's Note: Thank goodness the door to that classroom was open.)

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October 15, 2019, 10:23 pm PDT

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