Studio Laos: Strategic Landscape Planning for the Greater Mekong

Strategic Landscape Planning for the Greater Mekong builds on seven years of design-based experiential learning across mainland Southeast Asia by the Division of Landscape Architecture. This year, focusing on the regional impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in northern Laos, students spend one term engaging issues of development vis-à-vis landscape architecture to define problems and produce innovative planning proposals. To build their knowledge base, students synthesized, through maps and diagrams, geography and anthropology literature on Laos’s major drivers of landscape change, including land reallocation polices, protected area development, watershed planning, drug eradication, illegal timber trade, and artisanal and corporate mining practices. Having not visited Laos this term due to the pandemic, we took the opportunity to reinforce critical approaches to planning, in which we understand our “sites” as inherently multi-sited constructs dominated by different stakeholders’ perspectives. In place of their field trip, each student was assigned pairs of existing development projects that we visited in previous years, and they were instructed to imagine the frictions between those sites’ ideologies, aims, expertise, and longer histories. For their strategic planning proposals, students each asked difficult questions of development and sustainability practices, including: Challenging impact assessment scope; qualifying the remediation potential of Chinese contract farming; bridging scientific study and community forestry; mitigating the industrialization and over-harvesting of species for traditional medicine; and exploring overlaps between mass ecotourism, protected areas and the illegal wildlife trade. Students had their work juried by a mix of ecologists, sociologists, geographers, activists, and philanthropists, in addition to designers and planners.

Landscape As Development

“Landscape as Development” was a technology-theory seminar that surveyed the epistemological and practical gap between ecological planning (as construed by landscape architecture) and biological conservation. This course was designed to facilitate critical reflection on the selection and appropriation of secondary scientific research for environmental planning practice and policy. The course’s reading list was a mix of: a) foundational texts in landscape architecture, landscape planning, and landscape ecology; b) novel papers in spatial ecology; and c) case-based literature from science and technology studies (STS), land change science, and political ecology. We focused equally on theory, bridging between the design disciplines and the axioms, problem framing, and project types of the above conservation-related fields, and building students’ technical geospatial skill sets for working within complex and contested natures. Students’ term projects for the course introduced them to how landscape ecologists and landscape scientists are engaging a major ongoing international development plan, this year focused on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) running from Ruili in Yunnan to Rakhine State in Myanmar via Mandalay. In-class workshops helped students develop an understanding of this corridor as an assemblage of pre-BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) development projects and critically assess plans for its improvement and conservation.

Engaging development through critical landscape planning

This thesis section has for several years encouraged transdisciplinary landscape planning interventions in China’s large-scale eco-environmental programmes (生态立州). With China’s Belt and Road Initiative and increasingly diverse processes of going out (走出去), this section welcomes landscape-driven theses in transnational arenas of global environmental importance heavily influenced by Chinese development, aid and expertise. Indeed, lessons from China’s internal development, such as the long-running Western Development campaign (西部大开发), provide a critical lens for understanding new potentials for Chinese-led projects in ecologically complex frontiers. The global shift during the 1990s to models of “sustainable development” greatly influenced the establishment of China’s environmental legislation and national environmental programmes. Such national projects as the Sloping Land Conversion and Natural Forest Protection Programs mold, sometimes with great conflict, to diverse geographies where people impacted have a direct attachment to the landscape. However, these frontiers are typically the domain of multilateral development banks and international environmental NGOs. The design and planning disciplines’ involvement is either nascent or, when it exists in regional or master planning, naive, subservient and disciplinarily siloed. This thesis section seeks a renewed agency for landscape architecture in development. Theses will explore how landscape architecture could mediate technical practices (e.g., impact assessment of engineering projects, scientific prediction of ecosystem services) and practices of sustainability (e.g., technology transfers, resource governance) as discovered, studied, organized, and/or disseminated via design and the desire to intervene. Students will employ strategies such as counter-mapping and generate designs that synthesize environmental knowledge with differing value systems into landscape-driven scenarios and development narratives. Long the arena of geography and anthropology, the landscape architect and planner find disciplinary footing from earlier periods of landscape planning, contemporary landscape urbanism, and emergent technologies and approaches from civil engineering and sustainability sciences.

Studio Laos: Strategic Landscape Planning for the Greater Mekong

Strategic Landscape Planning for the Greater Mekong builds on seven years of design-based experiential learning across mainland Southeast Asia by the Division of Landscape Architecture. This year, focusing on the regional impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in northern Laos, students spend one term engaging issues of development vis-à-vis landscape architecture to define problems and produce innovative planning proposals. To build their knowledge base, students synthesized, through maps and diagrams, geography and anthropology literature on Laos’s major drivers of landscape change, including land reallocation polices, protected area development, watershed planning, drug eradication, illegal timber trade, and artisanal and corporate mining practices. Having not visited Laos this term due to the pandemic, we took the opportunity to reinforce critical approaches to planning, in which we understand our “sites” as inherently multi-sited constructs dominated by different stakeholders’ perspectives. In place of their field trip, each student was assigned pairs of existing development projects that we visited in previous years, and they were instructed to imagine the frictions between those sites’ ideologies, aims, expertise, and longer histories. For their strategic planning proposals, students each asked difficult questions of development and sustainability practices, including: Challenging impact assessment scope; qualifying the remediation potential of Chinese contract farming; bridging scientific study and community forestry; mitigating the industrialization and over-harvesting of species for traditional medicine; and exploring overlaps between mass ecotourism, protected areas and the illegal wildlife trade. Students had their work juried by a mix of ecologists, sociologists, geographers, activists, and philanthropists, in addition to designers and planners.

Counter-assessment

Title: Counter-assessment
Subtitle: Critical Landscape Planning for the Dawei Road Link, 1995-2019

Abstract:

Environmental impact assessments bear the responsibility of assessing, negotiating, and ensuring accountability and deterrence of socioeconomic risks and environmental degradation. Most international standards call for cumulative impact analysis, which goes beyond the immediate physical impacts of construction and operation. However, for projects with long histories, here namely “projects” for the Dawei road link beginning in 1997, 2010, 2015, and 2019, what are most impactful are the ways these projects have incrementally, substantially, and sometimes violently rewritten these histories, albeit through the often technical languages of planning, engineering, ecology, and social science. Based on analysis of thousands of pages of company reports, over 150 unique sources, and high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, this project look inside the development process for clues of how to better assess the complex past and future impacts of infrastructure on our environment. Through constructing a novel two-decade history of the Dawei road corridor, I argue that more rigorous tools and frameworks are necessary to combat the amnesia of infrastructure development, both in terms of historical narratives and technical knowledge. Strategic analysis and sustainability require longer-term studies, larger landscape extents, and deeper awareness of the development process.

Impact:

  • Applied innovation: Geostatistical analysis of road construction using high-resolution commercial satellite imagery over five years along a 100+ kilometer corridor. This analysis contested the project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) claim of the road’s status as an “upgrade” project, using precise classification and quantification of clearance and construction activity, establishing new pre-construction baselines and innovative algorithms for categorization of various upgrading and widening construction activities.
  • Applied innovation: Semi-automated analysis and graphic summary of satellite data availability from over 700 high-resolution (sub-meter) scenes to be certain that all possible remotely sensed evidence was acquired.
  • Applied innovation: Adaptive visualization of a 45-page timeline built from semi-automated cataloguing of a 250-event history from nearly 300 references in over 180 unique source documents. For neutrality and to ease comprehension, these sources were presented in roughly 60 dominant voices (e.g., various governments, various tabloids, technical reports) in 20 categories, alongside the main stakeholders involved. Each of the 45 pages contains a map that is updated with its events’ geospatial information, including impacted communities, road construction activity, and other important contextual information. A database was also compiled to automatically normalize Karen and Myanmar names of over 70 impacted villages in the project area, where some of them had over 10 spellings across the source documents. This automation allowed for the rapid revision of the timeline and presentation to stakeholders on three separate occasions during its creation, as well as multiple versions of history targeted to different stakeholder groups depending on the sources they trust.
  • Applied innovation: Compilation of seven historical road alignments and interpolation of missing civil engineering coordinate systems used for design and impact evaluation, as well as geo-tagging and semi-automated mapping of 300 road construction photos (from a set of over 3000 photos).

Key outputs:

  • Kelly, A. S. (2019, under review). Design Review: Counter-assessment of impacts for the Dawei Road Link, 1995-2018 (Report). World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Myanmar. 198 pp.
  • Kelly, A. S. (2019). Analysis of the compensation proposal for the Dawei road link (September 2019). (Memo). 8 pp.
  • Helsingen, H., Kelly, A. S., Connette, G., Paing Soe, Bhagabati, N., Pairojmahakij, R., & Jayasinghe, N. (2019). Nature in peril: The risk to forests and wildlife from the Dawei-Htee Khee Road (Report). World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Myanmar. 51 pp.

Speaking engagements:

  • Kelly, A. S. (2019). Counter-assessment of impacts and history for the Dawei road link, 1995-2019. Opening talk delivered at Thailand and Dawei Special Economic Zone: The Road Link to Kilometer Zero to a forum of academics, NGOs, civil society, community stakeholders, and public at Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC). Bangkok, Thailand.
  • Kelly, A. S. (2018). Engaging infrastructure development through critical design practice: Campaigns in Southeast Asia. Talk delivered to Environmental, Geostrategic, and Economic Dimensions of the Silk Road Economic Belt, hosted by Duke-Kunshan University and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Center for International and Global Studies, China.

 

COVID-19 Spatial Contact Tracing

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When future epidemic waves of COVID-19 occur, near- instantaneous contact tracing will be essential to lower the transmission growth rate. The recently released Google Apple Contact Tracing (GACT) system only traces device-to-device proximity for users of its app and neglects other crucial spatial- and temporal- aspects of disease transmission. We solve this problem with a simple idea: a Spatial Contract Tracing (SCT) system that tethers static devices (“SCT devices”) to specific spaces.

This idea improves the precision of exposure risk estimates by providing more accurate measures of environment (type of room), distance (between individuals), time (duration and contemporaneity of exposure), and location  (horizontal and vertical coordinates). In the immediate term these metrics enable rapid and comprehensive contact tracing. In the near term they provide an essential natural experiment if transmission models are to be refined and more efficient responses developed.

In the baseline GACT system, mobile devices act as proxies for people, and thus one may speak of devices that are “infected” with COVID-19. GACT detects contact between an infected device and another device when they are within each other’s Bluetooth range. SCT devices mounted on the ceiling of rooms will better detect the presence of all GACT devices. More importantly, these detect contact in five additional situations: app users beyond the GACT detection range; app users occupying the same space at a later time; users holding low-cost Bluetooth beacons; and those reachable by managers of these spaces for users who do not have the app installed or do not own a mobile device.

Alerted contacts could then decide on the relevant level of response to take, which is especially pertinent to those with preexisting health conditions or for contacts who live with or frequently visit individuals at higher risk. Further, because SCT devices run an app following GACT, they inherit the security and privacy features of the GACT system. Lastly, data collected through SCT could be used by epidemiologists to refine the transmission model, thereby enabling more effective contact tracing.

COVID-19 Geolocation

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Abstract

COVID-19 is primarily spread two ways: 1) Via respiratory droplets; and 2) Transfer from a contaminated surface to the face via your hands (WHO, 2020). Awareness of both colocation and whether an individual has contacted a contaminated surface, such as a doorknob, is important and could better guide individuals toward self-quarantine and COVID-19 testing. Therefore, to contain the periodic spread of COVID-19 in communities, it is vital for individuals to know their personal 14-day exposure risk, which is a combination of having crossed paths with a confirmed COVID-19 case and having contacted a potentially contaminated surface.

Our proposal is a smartphone application and exposure risk assessment model that leverages existing technologies supplemented with the crowdsourced data outlined in this paper. The COVID-19 Geolocation App (the “App”) records an individual user’s location history and computes their exposure risk by cross-referencing that history with an Infectious Space-Time Map (ISTM). Exposure risk is computed entirely on one’s personal smartphone using a geographical subset of the ISTM, which is updated daily from a central server. If heightened exposure risk is detected, the App displays a notification on the user’s smartphone that suggests further action, such as self-quarantine, based on current epidemiological understanding. The ISTM is our proposed model that synthesizes the 14-day location history of voluntarily disclosed (and, in many contexts, health-authority confirmed) COVID-19 cases with existing outdoor and indoor geolocation technologies in public and semi-public spaces. The ISTM focuses explicitly on rapid deployment, user privacy, and flexible adoption of new epidemiological knowledge, such as increased risk due to prolonged exposure to a potentially infected user’s symptomatic phase, and geolocation technologies as they become available.

Engaging development through critical landscape planning

This thesis section has for several years encouraged transdisciplinary landscape planning interventions in China’s large-scale eco-environmental programmes (生态立州). With China’s Belt and Road Initiative and increasingly diverse processes of going out (走出去), this section welcomes landscape-driven theses in transnational arenas of global environmental importance heavily influenced by Chinese development, aid and expertise. Indeed, lessons from China’s internal development, such as the long-running Western Development campaign (西部大开发), provide a critical lens for understanding new potentials for Chinese-led projects in ecologically complex frontiers. The global shift during the 1990s to models of “sustainable development” greatly influenced the establishment of China’s environmental legislation and national environmental programmes. Such national projects as the Sloping Land Conversion and Natural Forest Protection Programs mold, sometimes with great conflict, to diverse geographies where people impacted have a direct attachment to the landscape (Yeh, 2013). However, these frontiers are typically the domain of multilateral development banks and international environmental NGOs. The design and planning disciplines’ involvement is either nascent or, when it exists in regional or master planning, naive and disciplinarily siloed. See Weller (2014) for an optimistic overview-from within landscape architecture-of the discipline’s past and potential contributions to environmental planning. This thesis section seeks a renewed agency for landscape architecture in development. Theses will explore how landscape architecture could mediate technical practices (e.g., impact assessment of engineering projects, scientific prediction of ecosystem services) and practices of sustainability (e.g., technology transfers, resource governance) as discovered, studied, organized, and disseminated via design and the desire to intervene. Students will employ strategies such as counter-mapping and generate designs that synthesize environmental knowledge with differing value systems into landscape-driven scenarios and development narratives. Long the arena of geography and anthropology, the landscape architect and planner find disciplinary footing from earlier periods of landscape planning, contemporary landscape urbanism, and emergent technologies and approaches from civil engineering and sustainability sciences. (For an immersion into related interdisciplinary human-environment project types, see Roy Chowdhury (2013).)

Environmental Futures Studio: Design, Nature and the Erosion of Conservation in Hong Kong

Given Hong Kong’s unremitting development pressures, both pro-development and pro-conservation groups are now calling for ways to evaluate sites for development based on environmental metrics and new conservation agreements. However, for the built-environment disciplines in Hong Kong, sustainability discourse is predominantly aligned with economic and urban sustainability, rather than the new forms of conservation that contend to use environmental modeling to justify the conversion of conservation uses. For urban and landscape resilience, we must ensure the critical and innovative deployment of conservation and impact assessment instruments and tools while fully aware of the territory’s increasing politics of sustainability. During the term, students were immersed in and experimented with methods and tools of other disciplines engaging development, including: 1) Landscape and biodiversity modeling techniques for measuring connectivity, fragmentation, and species richness that questioned issues of data quality, scientific bias, reductive methodologies, and disciplinary blindspots; and 2) Anthropological cases on public participation and environmental advocacy, including issues of expertise, evidence, discourse analysis, counter-knowledge, and universal values. These exercises were complemented by seminars on Hong Kong’s legal, planning and assessment tools related to conservation, as well as discussions on disciplinary boundaries of sustainability sciences to help students better articulate their own expertise as landscape architects and planners. For the remainder of the design studio, students raised critical issues through creating scenarios of development, such as: Redrawing ecological baselines from a more thorough understanding of specific sites’ environmental histories; Problematizing the timescales of ecology and development planning (e.g., public participation, judicial review, ecological assessment) at sites of past land conversion; and Salvaging science and challenging transparency through scenarios of environmental data uncertainty.

Studio Laos: Strategic Landscape Planning for the Greater Mekong

Strategic Landscape Planning for the Greater Mekong builds on six years of design-based experiential learning across mainland Southeast Asia by the Division of Landscape Architecture. This year, focusing on the regional impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in northern Laos, students spend one term engaging issues of development vis-à-vis landscape architecture to define problems and produce innovative planning proposals. Before visiting Laos in early March, students reviewed literature on Laos’s major drivers of landscape change, including land reallocation polices, protected area development, watershed planning, drug eradication, illegal timber trade, and artisanal and corporate mining practices. Students synthesized these issues through maps and diagrams and distributed them as a 150-page report to organizations met in Laos. In addition to visiting several conservation management projects, students presented their work to the landscape ecology lab at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Yunnan and civil society in Laos, including representatives from domestic NGOs, bilateral aid agencies and embassies from Germany, Switzerland, and the United States, as well as international organizations, including OXFAM and the UN-FAO. For their strategies, students developed proposals for a range of sites and issues, including: Chinese development enclaves at Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and the China-Laos border; Remediation potential of Chinese contract farming; China-led transboundary forest research plots and community forest initiatives; Ethno-botanical knowledge at Xishuangbanna, Laos’s newly opened botanical garden in Luang Prabang, and civil society learning centers; Resilience of China-Laos Railway temporary access roads; and Materials sourcing in large infrastructure and development enclave construction.