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Archive for July, 2008

True Confessions

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Sad to say, I gave up my community garden this year after a couple of years of wonderful food raised under less-than-wonderful conditions. My schedule simply made it crazy to give it all the attention it deserved (and demanded).

So I read with interest a recent blog entry on By Design by Allison Arieff of The New York Times called “Grow Your Own.” She documents her experience of transforming her city yard into an urban garden that not only feeds her family but also feeds others. This is all accomplished with the help of a farmer brought in to execute and maintain the transition. Goodbye, lawn. 

I live in a nice bit of suburbia now, but once lived in New York City. Even there, I grew tomatoes. It’s time to rethink my schedule.

So what are you harvesting?

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Fountain-Dread?

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At the Chronicle of Higher Education, UCLA’s dean of social sciences wrote about the role of fountains on university campuses and the value they bring. However, he posed an interesting question:

Ironically, fountains have become ubiquitous, albeit in lesser forms. Mass-produced, faux-Rococo fountains dot suburban yards and supermarkets. Desktop Zen pools spout water through bamboo colored plastic piping, keeping shiny marbles spinning. Shopping malls pump lighted water over floor-to-ceiling slabs of slate. Do we risk burning out on them?

As landscape architects, what role do fountains play in your designs? Does the widespread use of reduced-quality fountains desensitize the public to true works of art or trigger a greater appreciation? Let us know in the comments.

Photo: Harvard University’s Tanner Fountain by Alan Ward

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What does this transformed schoolyard have to do with making landscape architecture a more visible, more influential profession? By itself, probably not much. But suppose this schoolyard was part of a school-system-wide program for transforming most or all of the schoolyards in a large American city, and a landscape architect was the instigator of it all? Would that not give landscape architecture a more powerful role in community affairs and people’s daily lives?

That’s just what happened in Denver. There, Lois Brink, Affiliate ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture, created a public–private partnership with the potential to transform all the elementary school playgrounds in the city. It began as a grassroots effort to turn the asphalt wasteland of the school Brink’s children attended into a vibrant area with a garden and more kid-friendly play and learning opportunities. In her studio class at the University of Colorado Denver, Brink challenged her students to engage the community in rethinking the space. When she had a plan in hand, she and other parents began raising funds to actually implement it—but after six years, they were still coming up short.

So Brink took a bold step: She ventured out of the safe confines of the university and approached the chief operating officer of the Denver Public Schools. He not only liked the plan but thought the idea was transferable to other schools. He and Brink went to the city and the Gates Foundation for funding, then formed a public–private partnership, the Learning Landscape Alliance—headed by Brink—that coordinated planning, funding, and construction. Local landscape architects were hired to draw up construction documents. The idea caught on with the public, and taxpayers passed a bond to transform more and more schools. As of this spring, 50 schoolyards had been completed, and a bond that would fund improvements for the rest of the district’s elementary schools will be put to a vote this fall.

Consider the Learning Landscape Alliance as a prototype. If other landscape architects took the initiative to rebuild schoolyards—or any other public landscape type for that matter—in their home cities, what would that do for the profession? One caveat: It might require landscape architects to venture into the scary arena of politics. Are landscape architects, including academics, ready for that?

More broadly, is this the kind of contribution this profession adequately celebrates or values? Currently, landscape architects reserve their highest reverence for one-of-a-kind built landscapes. There may be good reasons for this: The best of such built landscapes are invariably beautiful. Sometimes they are even embraced by the public. Taken together, these one-off projects seem to constitute the image that the profession wants to present to the world.

But equally compelling, if less imageable, are landscape systems that alter, in a much more sweeping way, the places we and our families live in every day. Yet too often, these large-scale initiatives remain unheralded. Denver is a good example. Until our writer visited some of the schoolyards with Brink and began researching the initiative, I had no idea of its magnitude. How can some of the profession’s most notable achievements be communicated to the public if they remain well-kept secrets? What other grand civic initiatives, with landscape architects as major players, are out there waiting to be discovered?

 

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA

Editor / bthompson@asla.org

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This year’s Venice Biennale, the 11th International Architecture Exhibition titled “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building” and scheduled to open September 11, 2008, will feature a prominent, stand-alone landscape architecture project that promises to shine a significant and dramatic light on the profession on a global scale.

While landscape architecture projects have been included in past exhibitions at this highly visible and respected event, this year’s project by Gustafson Porter and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, in keeping with the event’s theme, steps outside the exhibit halls to occupy a significant piece of land.

The Biennale typically attracts well in excess of 100,000 visitors, including a huge press contingent that results in coverage across the media spectrum. The “Toward Paradise” site will be located within the grounds of the church of Santa Maria delle Vergini, a Benedictine nunnery founded in 1205 and demolished in 1869.

The firms have sent out a call for both financial patrons to help finance the project and supporters willing to donate time and materials to the installation. (To learn more, contact Anne Hill, marketing coordinator at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, at 206-903-6802 or anneh@ggnltd.com.) What kind of impact do you think such global design projects have on the public’s understanding of the profession?

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As landscape architects prepare to head to Philadelphia this fall for ASLA Annual Convention, they can take heart in that city’s renewed dedication to the value and development of parks. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, “Philadelphia’s parks are worth nearly $1.9 billion annually in services, income, and taxes to the city, Mayor Nutter and advocates said yesterday,” referencing a report that sets the stage for hearings regarding the future of Fairmount Park. (See report) That’s a lot of green.

With declining tax revenues and a slowed economy beginning to threaten the outlook for park development in cities large and small, are such analyses the right tool at the right time? Has anyone else attempted to assign a dollar value to your parklands?

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