Q&A: Visualizing the Future of the Highlands

The Highlands corridor, stretching from the Delaware Rivier to Northern Connecticut, serves as an upland “green belt,” dividing the region between its coastal and upstate areas. As finalists in RPA’s Design Competition for the Fourth Regional Plan, Port & Range collaborated with RPA to visualize what the future of this diverse and vital part of our region could look like.

We interviewed the designers at Port & Range to learn more about their proposed design solutions.

Q: What are some of the external factors that will affect the future of the Highlands? 

A: The farms, the forests, the lakes and the rivers of the Highlands and Great Valley provide drinking water, food, and recreation for the region’s population. They support rich biotic resources, sequester carbon, generate oxygen, cool the urban heat island and store flood waters that otherwise engulf downstream towns and cities.

As the pressures of climate change increase, and the region’s population grows—both in the core and in the Highlands and Great Valley—the capacity of these two thick belts of high-performing ecology will determine the region’s potential for sustainable growth.

If politics and institutions adapt in the next 25 years to facilitate real resource exchanges between the region’s urban and rural areas, we can create mutually beneficial projects that concentrate rural growth, increase productivity of resource lands and build innovative landscape infrastructures that multiply ecological capacity.

Q: How do the designs you’ve created incorporate or respond to those changes? 

A: The PORT + Range approach to the Highlands works across many scales and means of exchange: from a broad communications campaign to increase understanding of rural areas and regional nature; to large-scale, multi-purpose infrastructural ways; to concentrated formats of green development; to strategies for supporting active stewardship and “farming” of ecosystem services.

By intensifying reliance on existing and new tools and institutions—transfer of development rights, conservation banks, and carbon markets, for example—the region can establish an exchange of resources that allows cities downstream to secure ecosystem services and flood storage upstream where they can be produced efficiently.

Multi-purpose landscape infrastructural ways built and maintained with this money will dramatically increase environmental capacity. Specifically, in the Highlands and the Great Valley, we imagine infrastructural “hydroways” that increase total water supply and quality, reduce flooding, and thicken the forest and wildlife “geneways.” The ways feature long-distance trails and diverse kinds of public space that increase human enjoyment and understanding of cultivated nature, while dramatically increasing environmental capacity and climate adaptation.

In the Lowland Front, we intensify low-ecological value landscapes adjacent to, or nearby existing population centers and transport. We designed a series of hybrid development formats that tie landscape performance and character (ecosystem service upgrades) to bonuses and incentives related to the production of new concentrated settlement.

Q: This initiative has been produced as a part of RPA’s fourth regional plan, in which RPA argues that with the right strategies, investments and political will, the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area could be a place that fulfills its promise of equal opportunity; a coastal region that shows the rest of the world how to adapt and prosper in an age of rising seas and temperatures; and a global hub that harnesses its immense resources and innovative talent to make this fast-paced, expensive metropolis an easier, healthier and more affordable place to live and work. 

How do the designs for you’ve created for the Highlands corridor forward this vision for the region? 

A: Through the integration of conservation and development, ecosystems and economies, design and management, the PORT and Range vision for the Highland’s future embodies the goals of the Fourth Plan. We start by trying to increase understanding of how important the “near nature” just 30-miles from the cities is to a resilient metropolitan region, and why some ecosystem goods are much more cost-effectively produced upstream than downstream, at the “end of the pipe.” We capitalize on the potential for innovative large-scale design, policy, ecology and engineering moves in lightly populated areas, and we show how policy tools and incentives can increase equity and green jobs, connecting with the human potential. Placemaking, identity and ecology are embedded in all of the proposed new infrastructures and settings for development.

Q: Is there an alternate vision you foresee for the Highlands if these investments don’t happen? If our patterns of development stay the same despite changing population, technological landscapes, climate, etc.?

A: Urbanized, developed land increased 27% in the Highlands ecoregion over the last 20 years. The rate of greenfield development in the Great Valley was higher. If these patterns continue, even at diminished rates, flooding, costly water treatment and desalination plants, food insecurity, carbon emissions, heat island, and species extinctions will increase dramatically, with major impacts on risks, costs, and quality of life in urban and suburban areas.

Learn more about Port & Range’s vision for the Highlands online at 4c.rpa.org or at the 4C: Four Corridors: Foreseeing the Future of the Region exhibit at The Chapel at Fort Tilden, open to the public on August 5, 2017 through September 17 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 AM – 6 PM. 

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