Archive for the ‘Ecosystem Restoration’ Category


The ravines of Toronto / The Toronto Region and Conservation Authority

The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s (TCLF) Leading with Landscape symposium offered a deep examination of the landscape of Toronto, which was described as a complex ecological system. The presence of Toronto mayor John Tory at the conference showed the importance local policymakers place on the landscape architecture community in shaping the future of this city, the fourth largest in North America. Mayor Tory spoke of balancing growth with social and environmental responsibilities, and the integral role landscape architects play in creating a sustainable city.

The first of TCLF’s Modernism symposiums in Chicago sought to define contemporary landscape architecture by looking at its historical context. The second conference at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City championed landscape architectural practices that challenge rigid Modernist idioms through systems-based approaches, which cities increasingly need to deal with today’s complex environmental and social challenges. And the third installment, Leading with Landscape, called for responsive urban design based in a “landscape first” approach.

The day-long conference focused the conversation on how cities — with Toronto serving as the host city and model — are created and sustained through landscape. The term landscape here refers to interconnected natural systems (geologic, hydrologic, botanical and zoological); the many interventions and manipulations of land by humans — from indigenous people to contemporary landscape architects, planners, and engineers; and the resulting street grid and consequent structures.

Landscape architects explored aspects of Toronto’s history before delving into specific contemporary projects. Here, landscape architects explain the forces that have shaped the landscape of Toronto, the cultural and ecological context:

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder of TCLF and organizer of the conference, presented a chronological overview of the cultural landscape of Toronto, with specific examples from Allan Gardens to the post-Modernism of Yorkville Park. Birnbaum made a passionate argument for growing Toronto from its historic fabric. He spoke of the importance of context and narrative in the creation of authentic, resilient places, which can then generate the cultural and financial investments needed for a vital urban environment.


Yorkville park, Toronto / Landscape Voice

Landscape architect Janet Rosenberg, FASLA, founding principal, Janet Rosenberg & Studio, and Michael McClellan, principal at ERA Architects, introduced some motifs that recurred throughout the conference: the idea of a multi-verse Toronto with many socio-economic layers that exist side by side, like the suburban high-rises next to the waterfront reality; and the major role of the city’s ravines, which structure the city’s hydrology.

The ecological and cultural contexts that have shaped Toronto were further related by Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, associate professor, school of urban + regional planning, Ryerson University. Lister showed the transformation of the city’s landscape by geologic, hydrologic and human forces, and how the expansion and the demand for economic productivity eroded critical ecological services. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel led to devastating flooding in the city, which began a movement towards a hybrid-design approach that engages development alongside a deeper consideration of natural systems.

Brendan Stewart, ASLA, landscape architect and urban designer, ERA Architects, used early city maps to show the lot plans – Toronto’s original organizing grid — and the many subsequent layers and sub-divisions that occurred over two hundred years, which all eschewed the complexities of the existing ecosystem.

Stewart also explained the role of landscape architects in the development of the city — André Parmentier’s geometries at Queen’s Park and the University Avenue landscape being enduring examples. Like Lister, Stewart noted the increased awareness of Toronto’s natural systems following Hurricane Hazel, and the subsequent shift in the goals of the parks and recreation department. Today, the department is not only focused on providing spaces for recreation for residents, but also designing a park system that can provide a hydrologic structure to protect the city.


Queen’s Park, Toronto / Chuck Man Toronto Nostalgia Blog

Concluding the discussion of Toronto’s ecological and cultural context, Jane Wolff, associate professor, University of Toronto, presented a short history of coupled built and natural systems in Toronto, equal parts accident and intention. An example of this interplay is the bluff condition of the city that has “fed” the archipelago just off the shore of the city; the islands that formed are now an integral part of the cultural and ecologic fabric of Toronto. Another example, the Tommy Thompson Park – a spit created by the engineered redirection of the Don River – has become a flourishing ecosystem that now provides a stop for birds along their yearly migration.

Read part 2.

This guest post is by Tim Popa, Communications Director, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture.

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Brightwater / Jared Green

Imagine a wastewater treatment facility where people get married, amid 40-acres of restored salmon habitat with designed ponds and wetlands. It sounds far-fetched but it’s reality in Snohomish County, Washington, near the border with King County, about an hour northeast from downtown Seattle. In a tour of the Brightwater facility during the American Planning Association (APA) conference by Michael Popiwny, the landscape architect who managed this $1 billion project for the King County government, we learn how wastewater treatment plants can become assets instead of drains on communities and the environment. The key to success was an interdisciplinary management, design, and construction team that was highly responsive to community feedback and deeply sensitive to environmental concerns. Plus, Brightwater was paid for by growth in the region. As new people are attracted to the quality of life the Seattle area offers, they move in and pay a $4,000 – $8,000 sewer hook-up fee. “The fact that new people were paying for the system helped us to sell it to the community.”

Brightwater, a 15-year endeavor that began operations in 2011, is a wastewater treatment facility, environmental education and community center, and ecological system rolled into one. It’s a 114-acre site, nestled in a wealthy residential area, with some 70 acres of trails and parks open to the public. There are 13 miles of underground conveyance pipes that direct wastewater to the plant. When it reaches the plant, the wastewater is cleaned through the largest membrane bioreactor system in North America, which makes the water 70 percent cleaner than conventional approaches. It is then sent out through a 600-foot-deep outfall pipe a mile out into the Puget sound. Excess materials are turned into “loop,” a biosolid that is sold to local farms and orchards at very low cost.

However, this description of the system doesn’t do justice the experience of being at Brightwater. Popiwny explained the critical role excellent design played in “selling this place to the community.” He said, “we realized that this place needed to be beautiful. We need it to be very well designed.” Just siting the project won King and Snohomish counties, along with CHM2Hill and Environmental Design Associates, an ASLA 2005 Professional Analysis and Planning award. Then, engineers with CHM2Hill and landscape architects with Hargreaves Associates and Mithun along with restoration ecologists and conservation biologists came together in an interdisciplinary design team to create a welcoming place that actually restored the ecological function of the landscape, turning into a place that aids salmon in their annual migration.

Popiwny briefly described the design and construction process: “We had separate contracts for the engineering and design teams. We needed the strongest engineering team and the strongest landscape architecture team. The teams completed their work separately and then we combined their efforts in the final design. Internally, we had an engineer lead the engineering team, and I led the design team. It’s important that you set up competitions for top notch talent in each category and then give them equal status.”

As the deep processing facilities were dug out of the landscape, the excess soil was turned into “decorative, geometric landforms,” by Hargreaves Associates. “These landforms alone took thousands of trucks off the highway, saved lots of carbon,” explained Popiwny.


On the way to the North 40 acres, Brightwater / Jared Green

Amid these landforms in the “north 40 acres” is an elaborate system of forests, meadows, raingardens, wetlands, and ponds that hold and clean rainwater before directing it to the streams salmon use. What was once an auto depot is now a place that provides great environmental benefits.


Restored forested habitat / Jared Green

The process of restoring the habitat and turning into a publicly-accessible park was complex, involving stream and wetland biologists, who guided ecological decisions, and landscape architects with Hargreaves. The team used 15 different types of rocks to create two different stream corridors that empty into ponds where salmon rest on their uphill climb to the places where they spawn. “The result is something similar to the original stream.”


Restored stream / Jared Green

To restore the forested wetland, the Brightwater team made it an environmental education and community outreach project. Kids from the area helped plant over 20,000 native willows. “Native willows are easy for children to plant. We had about 4-6 busloads of kids from the surrounding area per week.” This effort really helped create community buy-in and grow a sense of greater investment in the success of the project.


Forested wetland / Jared Green

As you walk out of the park and into the environmental education center, which was designed and built to a LEED Platinum level, you can see how an open-minded couple would actually want to host a wedding here. Popiwny laughed and said one comment he read about the onsite wedding online was, “it’s today — get with it!” There are pleasing views of the green infrastructure. One of the larger buildings is also a frequent host for local non-profits and community meetings.


Environmental education center / Jared Green

All of this is a result of efforts to stave off protracted lawsuits that would have delayed the project from the beginning. The parkland, environmental education and community centers, were all part of the $149 million set aside as part of the “mitigation budget.” According to Popiwny, “budgeting this kind of work upfront meant saving money over the long run.” However, the Brightwater project was still sued by local sewer districts who argued that the project “spent too much on mitigation.” The state supreme court eventually sided with Brightwater. Popiwny said “lawsuits are an inevitable part of large projects.”

Now the challenges to projects like Brightwater are “often in the guise of environmental protection.” But Popiwny just sees this as part of the broader system of checks in a democratic system. “There needs to be multiple checks as these projects can affect communities. The region benefited from the opposition to the project as it pushed us towards a higher performance, but it also made it more expensive.” The Brightwater team included other forms of technical fail-safe systems, like multiple, isolated ponds to separate acid or bases if there was an overflow or accident caused by an earthquake, and engineering all pipes and systems to withstand high levels of seismic activity.

As we walk out of the environmental education center, which features flexible classrooms for groups of all ages and enables a range of hands-on learning about the water cycle, we head to the facility itself, which is strangely odorless. “There are three levels of odor control.”


Brightwater wastewater treatment plant / Jared Green

Spread throughout the site is public art, as the project was part of the state’s 1 percent for art program. Climbing up a stairwell to the spot where the millions of gallons of cleaned water is sent out to the sound, there is artist Jane Tsong’s poem, which actively blesses the elements of the plant (air, water, biosolids) as “they depart from the treatment process and continue their life cycle into the natural world.”


Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green


Poems by Jane Tsong / Jared Green

Popiwny said the facility staff particularly connect with these poems, as it is reminder of how meaningful their work really is.

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Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park / Weiss/Manfredi

Seattle has long been an innovator in layering built and natural infrastructure so the two more fully complement each other. Over the past few decades, the city has taken advantage of all that rain so ever-present greenery seems to equal — if not dominate — the roads, bridges, and buildings. While locals may want even more parks, for someone just visiting the city the first time, Seattle exclaimed Pacific Northwest first and then city. Perhaps it’s the dramatic mountains, with their views carefully preserved from so many places in the city, or the water that is never far away. Or how trees and plants seem to be found everywhere they possibly can be. In the second in a series of posts on how Seattle has integrated built and natural infrastructure, we look at the Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park by interdisciplinary design firm Weiss/Manfredi, with Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, in downtown. Here is an example of how an incredibly difficult site with hardcore infrastructure needs — it must accommodate a railroad line, four-lane street, riverfront bike lane, and sea wall — was made a true destination with the addition of an inviting green public space that is a showcase for both art and the natural splendor of Seattle.

According to Julie Parrett, ASLA, a landscape architect who worked with Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture during the project and gave a tour of it for the American Planning Association (APA) conference, the site where the Seattle Art Museum built their park was owned by Union Oil Company of California up until 1999. When the museum was looking to expand their existing facility, developers were on their way to grabbing the property to turn into more apartments. At the 11th hour, $1 million was raised by Jon Shirley, a benefactor made wealthy by his role in Microsoft, and his wife Mary, to secure the land for a new sculpture park. They also created a $25 million operations and maintenance fund for the park in the beginning, so it would be “private but for public use.”

Still, it took nearly 10 years and much expense for this widely popular destination and neighborhood park to happen. The 8.5 acres of land were purchased for $20 million. Given the site was once a depot for train cars carrying oil, the clean up of the toxic soils cost another $5 million. For such a challenging site, the design and construction totaled $40 million.

The park’s M-shaped-path smartly invites exploration but also hides some of the limitations of the space. Upon first visiting, you are conveyed down to a striking rusted steel art work by Richard Serra, accessible via grassy stair-step terraces or a meandering trail — or drawn down across the first diagonal of the M to the grand vista of the bay and mountains. Those terraces double as an amphitheater for cultural events, with the Serra piece serving as a backdrop.


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park, Richard Serra’s Wake, 2004 / Jared Green


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park, Richard Serra’s Wake, 2004 / Jared Green

As you cross the first diagonal of the M, you begin to notice a slight change in elevation crossing over the four-lane street below. Again, it’s amazing how the views, landscape, and art together conspire to distract your eye from the transportation infrastructure below. Perhaps the experience would be different if the street was packed with cars. The time of day we visited, there were hardly any.


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1998-1999/ Jared Green

As you continue across the other diagonal of the M, you come across seating arranged for viewing the spectacular scenery.


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park, Alexander Calder’s The Eagle, 1971 / Jared Green


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park / Jared Green

Then, as you progress down over the rail line towards the waterfront, the experience changes again. Blasted with salty air, you make your way across the bike lanes to the railings facing the Elliott Bay and the 350-foot-long revamped sea wall that doubles as specially-constructed juvenile salmon habitat. Plants there were designed to accommodate for sea water inundation but otherwise Parrett said the site was not “designed for rising tides.”

The Seattle Art Museum is not kidding about maintenance. There was literally no trash to be found anywhere. The waterfront was free of any refuse, except for driftwood that is allowed to naturally accumulate in the built inlet that is then removed annually. At the constructed beach, Parrett explained that the riprap had been set there before, but the underwater slope was orchestrated so that “it would maintain itself.”


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park / Jared Green


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park / Jared Green


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park / Jared Green

For Parrett, the fact that there is a open beach and wildlife habitat in the sculpture park is worth highlighting. “This is a museum that took on an ecological agenda.”

She explained the great obstacles the design and construction team faced in realizing the park:

First, the team learned the 350-feet-long sea wall had to be replaced or repaired. The museum found that fully replacing the wall, which has to hold back tidal changes of 13 feet each day, could easily cost $50-80 million. “Paying this amount would have shut down the project,” so instead, the team looked to stabilize the wall while creating habitat for juvenile salmon. Salmon, which you hear about with regular frequency in Seattle, are endangered, but much effort is made to ensure they too benefit from the infrastructure primarily made for people. As Seattle city government senior planner Patrice Carol, the APA tour organizer, explained, “when we are doing anything in Seattle that impacts the water, we are dealing with the Endangered Species Act.”

The design team used in fill-in ballast to create nooks and crannies — a “habitat bench” — that small salmon can swim into without getting picked off by predators. Salmon come out of the Puget Sound and return to the freshwater lakes and streams were they were born to spawn. Young salmon then go back the way their progenitors came.

As Parrett, explained, “the bench has been hugely successful and has become a demonstration project.” It also just cost $5.5 million for the new sea wall and habitat combination, and because it involved salmon, the team was able to leverage federal funds.

Second, the site is a brownfield. Given its past history as part of Union Oil’s operations, 117,000 tons of contaminated soils had to be removed. And 300,000 cubic yards of new soil was brought in, much of it from 8 blocks away where there was a development. Still, with the underlying toxic asphalt, the designers could only dig down 3 feet in areas. Art, particularly the heavy pieces, had to be carefully placed to ensure they didn’t spark leakages. “There is still ongoing monitoring.”

Third, the development of the park required removing the last of Seattle’s beloved waterfront streetcar infrastructure. As Parrett explained, “this almost derailed the project.” The streetcar line has been replaced by a two-way bicycle track that was heavily used the day we were out.

Lastly, cleaning all stormwater runoff heading down the slope into the bay meant designing wetlands to store water from the site in key spots and slowly release it, which attracts the bugs salmon like to eat. The site was designed to feature almost an entirely native plant palette, “with every tree and plant hand selected,” so no pesticides would be needed. But the primary challenge turns out to be controlling “runoff” from dogs doing their business on the lawns, no matter how cute they may be.


Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park / Jared Green

Parrett explained how there are security guards always present to ward off dog owners that don’t obey signs, and the museum periodically rope off parts of the landscape to let it recover. “But we must use fish compost to keep the lawns alive.”

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Wooly Mammoth at Royal British Columbia Museum, Canada / A-Z Animals

Stewart Brand, who is perhaps best known for his book, Whole Earth Catalog, now runs the Long Now Foundation, which is focused on the next 10,000 years of human civilization. At the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Seattle, he called for a “planet-scale ecological restoration” over the next ten millennia, which can in part be accomplished by bringing back extinct mega-fauna like wooly mammoths. Over the past few thousands of years, the continental grasslands of the global north turned into tundra. To bring back the grasslands systems that co-evolved with wooly mammoths, scientists will need to first revive these ancient creatures using their DNA and the most cutting-edge biotechnology. Reborn grasslands would then be able to store massive amounts of carbon. The other part of this future Brand envisions: people will need to continue to crowd into cities, giving room for natural systems to be revitalized.

Healthy civilizations “balance man-made and natural infrastructures.” To get to a more healthy world, Brand says we must all become “ecological engineers,” like earthworms that aerate the soil, beavers that create dams, or Aldo Leopold, who restored the grasslands of Wisconsin and founded the field of conservation biology.

The problem with our civilization today is “we are not respecting nature’s rate of change.” Brand outlined the trends shaping the world as layers on top of each other forming a sort of onion, but with each layer moving at a different rate. Here are the moving layers listed in order from fastest to slowest: fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and, finally, nature. In this system, everything has its place and its own natural rate of change. If one gets out of synch, the system is violated. “For example, a too-fast rate of governance change can break the system. The U.S.S.R. moved fast with governance, violating commerce, nature, and the system self destructed.”

Brand believes when the fast parts (fashion, commerce, infrastructure) and the slow parts (governance, culture, nature) are in synch, we will have a more resilient system. Fast layers “propose, learn, absorb, discontinue, innovate, and get all the attention,” but slow layers “dispose, remember, integrate, continue, constrain, and have all the power.” In other words, “in cities, the fast layers dominate; but in the world, the slower layers dominate.” To achieve a lasting good, “we must take the long view,” nature’s view.

Cities and nature are in flux these days, as the relationship between the two is renegotiated. For example, there are now more than 2,000 coyotes in Chicago alone. And over 10,000 foxes in London. Brand pointed to Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden, Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars, and Fred Pierce’s The New Wild, as worthwhile new books that wade into these issues. The New Wild argues that “invasive species may be the key to nature’s salvation. We need to deal with the weird.”

As for climate change, Brand believes “it will keep things moving around.” He doesn’t see climate change causing more extinctions unless there are abrupt changes. After all, “species are constantly adjusting, eo-evolving with each other and other species. The ecological system is adjusting all the time.” Intervening in nature with biotechnology can help humans bring back useful or even beautiful species, like the passenger pigeon, and destroy dangerous diseases impacting critical species, like white nose syndrome in bats and avian malaria in birds. All of this will be part of our new role as “ecological engineers.”

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Pollinator Pathway One (Before and After Planting), 2011 / © Sarah Bergmann

EcoDistrict planning and design can accelerate local efforts to improve sustainability. EcoDistricts offer a framework through which communities can discuss, prioritize, and enact initiatives that address climate change — by providing clean energy, conserving wildlife habitat, and encouraging low-impact development — and also social equity. If more neighborhoods begin to adopt the EcoDistrict model — wherein a range of partner organizations work in concert — we could see stronger bottom-up pushes toward city-wide sustainability.

Since 2011, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is funded by the Bullitt Foundation and led by Capitol Hill Housing, has sought to improve the sustainability of the community and the equity of its constituents. This EcoDistrict is partnering with the Seattle 2030 District, a high-performance business district in downtown Seattle, that aims to reduce carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030. In 2015, Seattle’s City Council formally passed a resolution recognizing the EcoDistrict.

In the past few years, the EcoDistrict has made progress: Capitol Hill Housing and Seattle City Light started the first community solar project on an affordable housing building in Washington State. Participants in this program can “subscribe” to receive the benefits of solar via the systems built and maintained by Seattle City Light on the rooftop of the new Capitol Hill Housing, the Holiday Apartments, which houses 88 new apartments for low-income families, artist spaces, two theaters, various community organizations, and street-level retail spaces.

Also, innovative building projects are being encouraged to update the city’s outdated land-use code, using a process of design review. As an example, The Bullitt Center helped launch the city’s Living Building pilot program.

The EcoDistrict aims to address urban ecosystem fragmentation and the loss of tree canopy and open space. To do this, Capitol Hill Housing is partnering with interdisciplinary designer Sarah Bergmann to create the second certified Pollinator Pathway in the U.S. Each Pollinator Pathway connects two or more green spaces, following a set of scientific criteria, and is created through commission or partnership.

Bergmann’s first project, Pollinator Pathway One — a mile-long, 12-foot wide landscape first developed seven years ago — connects Seattle University’s campus with Nora’s Woods, a small forested area a mile away, through a series of connected gardens (see image above). The second project, Pollinator Pathway Two, will run through the heart of the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict and will connect two Olmsted-designed parks and Seattle University.

More knowledge sharing among EcoDistricts around the country will help lead to a more replicable model. Already, a few high-profile EcoDistricts are joining together: In 2014, the Portland, Oregon-based EcoDistrict organization launched a program called Target Cities, a two-year partnership with ten projects across eight North American cities.

This guest post is by Katy Scherrer, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Washington.

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Chrysanthemums grow at the base of Mount Hariya, a former landfill / Latz+Partners

Chrysanthemums grow at the base of Mount Hariya, a former landfill / Latz+Partners

The “Mountain of Crap,” the nickname for Hiriya landfill, and Freshkills share more than just evocative names. They are also two of the most outstanding examples of landscape transformation, in this case, urban landfills that have become parks – Ariel Sharon Park, outside of Tel Aviv, Israel and Freshkills Park, in Staten Island, New York.

Both were the wastelands of their respective cities. They began receiving garbage over 60 years ago, and closed at nearly the same time – Hiriya in 1999 and Freshkills in 2001. When complete, Ariel Sharon Park – like Freshkills – will be roughly three times the size of Central Park. The two parks signed a “twin parks” agreement last year to share information and plan cooperatively. Leaders from both parks will also present at April’s Greater & Greener Urban Parks Conference in San Francisco.

While much is known about Freshkills, less is known about the history of Ariel Sharon Park, at least in the U.S. Hiriya landfill is some 200-feet-high given because it sits on 25 million tons of waste. The landfill is located directly under the flight paths to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport. As massive flocks of birds swarming Hiriya caused a few too many close-misses and toxic runoff leached into streams adjacent to the landfill, public outcry to close the landfill grew.

By its final year of operation in 1998, Hiriya was receiving 3,000 tons of household waste per day. In 1999, it became a transfer station, and rehabilitation plans began in 2001. But even as park development move forward, the site continues waste operations. Municipal and agricultural waste is sorted and transferred at a large recycling center that captures methane from organic waste in anaerobic biogas digesters. The facility captures enough methane to power the entire recycling facility and sell back excess electricity to the Tel Aviv grid.

Anaerobic Biogas Digesters / Chris Tackett

Anaerobic Biogas Digesters / Chris Tackett

As much as 80 percent of incoming waste is reportedly recycled or reused by the Arrow Bio management company.

processing center

Waste transfer & recycling station / Yoshi Silverstein

An environmental education center near the recycling facilities features landfill-derived art from sponsored competitions alongside other interpretive resources.

Landfill art in the environmental education center / Yoshi Silverstein

Landfill art in the environmental education center / Yoshi Silverstein

As a first step, landscape architect Peter Latz, who is famous for Landscape Park Duisborg-Nord in Germany, designed an innovative “bio-plastic” layer covered with gravel and a meter of soil to protect wildflowers and vegetation from the underlying methane and other contaminants. Rainwater collection pools between the bio-plastic and soil layers will provide a source for the irrigation system for trees.

"Mount" Hariya Landfill / Latz+Partners

“Mount” Hariya Landfill / Latz+Partners

water collection

Water collection pool during construction / Yoshi Silverstein

Because it lies in the Ben-Gurion flyway and is in the center of the road connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the road connecting Tel Aviv to Haifa, the area is ill-suited for housing, even without the landfill. So in addition to the mountain capping the landfill itself, surrounding agricultural fields and waterways are being developed as wildlife habitat with man-made ponds, which will be accessible via bike and walking trails.

Pergola with views of Tel Aviv / Jessica Steinberg-Times of Israel

Pergola with views of Tel Aviv / Jessica Steinberg-Times of Israel

The paths winding through orchards, agricultural terraces, and native plantings will be laid on beds of recycled material. A lake and re-directed water systems will help alleviate flooding issues for South Tel Aviv and Holon, and a promenade and 50,000-seat amphitheater will draw people. Laura Starr, ASLA, Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects, led the initial international planning and design charette to create a vision for the park.

See a brief video outlining this vision:

Hiriya took its name from the former Arab village, al-Hariya, whose residents were evacuated prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. While its counterpart, Jaffa Landfill Park, designed by Braudo-Maoz Landscape Architecture of Tel Aviv, Israel, used the removal of a landfill and reconstruction of a seashore to ameliorate a painful past and serve as a springboard for social discourse, it’s unclear whether designs for the park include any official acknowledgement of Hiriya’s pre-landfill history.

What cannot be hidden is Hiriya’s mountain of crap. If all goes as planned, though, it will serve as a beacon for environmental restoration.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder of Mitsui Design.

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Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at MIT. Her most recent book is
The Eye is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery (2014). She is also the author of The Granite Garden (1984 ASLA President’s Award of Excellence), The Language of Landscape (1988), and Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field (2011 ASLA Honor Award). The Web site www.annewhistonspirn.com is a gateway to her work and activities.

This interview was conducted at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver.  

This year is the 30th anniversary of your book, The Granite Garden, which argued that cities are part of nature and should be designed with nature. Since 1984, how much progress have we made? Where are we still going wrong?

We’ve made enormous progress, particularly with water. Ironically, we’ve done less well on climate and air quality. I say ironically because there’s so much awareness of climate change these days. There’s been a lot of attention paid to design proposals aimed at adapting to rising sea levels, but less to the enormous potential that the design of cities holds for reducing the factors that contribute to climate change in the first place. We need to truly reimagine the way we design cities.

Scientists and engineers are focused on technical solutions, social scientists on policy. And that’s where the public debate is focused. We designers and planners are not getting our message across as well as we should.

On the other hand, it’s a tremendous challenge for us to keep up with the latest and best scientific knowledge that would directly affect the way we design. We’re awash in information. You can’t expect a practitioner to stay abreast of all this literature, which is why we at MIT are proposing to do a monograph series on knowledge related to the urban natural environment — air, earth, water, ecosystems — and make that bridge to design. These monographs would be authored by teams of designers and scientists.

We hope to make these available at no cost, to anyone in the world. We hope that they’ll be valuable to scientists too, because most scientists don’t really know how their discoveries apply to design and planning. We are seeking funds to start with urban climate and air quality and then do our next monograph on water.

My hope is that this will prompt new experimentation and research that will give landscape architects the information we need. Right now, scientists develop their research agendas for their own purposes, mainly to document, record, and predict, but not to alter the world or make it more beautiful.

Thirty years ago, there was a sharp divide between proponents of ecological design and landscape as an art form. Examples of urban design that were both ecologically functional and artful were few and far between. I wrote “The Poetics of City and Nature: Toward a New Aesthetic for Urban Design” in 1988 and my book, The Language of Landscape, to argue for design that fuses ecology and art. Others made that argument, too. Now we have many great models of artful ecological design. So that’s another area where we have made real progress.

What do you think of the theoretical discussions born out of your book: ecological urbanism and landscape urbanism?

They’re very important in several ways. Both movements have appealed to architects, and that’s really important. Green infrastructure is something that landscape architects have been talking about for many decades, but architects weren’t thinking in those terms. Landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism were deliberately aimed to capture that audience. And that’s good. On the other hand, some proponents have claimed their approach is radically new, which it is not, and have ignored the contributions of many others to both theory and practice. Certain built projects have captured the public imagination, but for the most part, the landscape urbanism and ecological urbanism literature has been aimed at the design disciplines, not the larger public. There is a need for publications that are valuable to  designers and planners and are also challenging, interesting, and enlightening to a broader audience.

I first set out to accomplish that with The Granite Garden. It probably took me an extra 3-4 years to write the book because I had to learn how to write to this larger audience, use no jargon, and explain the concepts in a way that wouldn’t be boring to my professional colleagues but at the same time would be engaging to the public. I learned the power of that approach when The Granite Garden was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and then abroad. It was picked up so widely because it was published as a book for a general audience, not solely as a professional text.

Landscape architects are not doing a good enough job at reaching that broader audience.

You say some things have improved; some haven’t. How would you change the way we’re communicating today? What’s the best way to reach the public?

The Web and electronic publishing have opened up powerful new opportunities. Twenty years ago, in 1995, the West Philadelphia Landscape Project Web site was in the works. Within two years, we’d had millions of visitors to the Web site, from 90 countries. This is the extraordinary power of the Web. I maintain several web sites, all geared to both a professional and a general audience, related to my research, writing, and teaching.

At AnneWhistonSpirn.com, I make available all of my writings except my books. I retain copyright and distribution rights to my articles, and so I can make them free for download on my web site. All of my courses have been online since 1996. They’re all available at no cost.

I’ve been part of the open-access movement before there was an open-access movement. I’ve always wanted to reach the broadest possible audience. There’s no single way to reach the public, but we shouldn’t dumb things down. We can engage both professionals and the public, if we go beyond the PR stuff and really try to reach the public in a serious way. As my editor would say, “Anne, your readers are not like your students. They don’t have to read. They can go get a beer and put down your book and never pick it up again, so you have to keep them engaged. You have a duty to your reader.”

E-publishing affords new ways to expand readership. With its many color photographs, a print edition of my new book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, would have been priced beyond the reach of many readers. To make it affordable, I composed and published it as an e-book.


The Eye Is a Door / Anne Whiston Spirn

New e-book editions of The Granite Garden and The Language of Landscape will be published later this year. You will be able to read them in two ways: through verbal text (with links to images and captions) or as an essay of images and captions (with links to the book’s text). I envision this as a new kind of reading experience.

Looking at innovation today, what do you see 30 years ahead?

In the epilogue to The Granite Garden, I imagined two visions of the future: the infernal city and the celestial city. A lot of what I envisioned then is now commonplace. On the other hand, much has happened that I did not imagine. A lot can change in 30 years. Just think: the original Macintosh, the first personal computer with a mouse and graphic interface, was released in January 1984, the same month as The Granite Garden.

Today, we have the Internet and social media. Our phones can collect and upload all kinds of data. We’ve got crowd sourcing of data. 30 years down the pike, clothing, and vehicles that gather data will be commonplace. We’re going to be overwhelmed with data, so we need to be even smarter about figuring out what this data means and how to use it.

Climate change and the gross disparities in economic means and access to education and employment across the world are threatening the human species. They’re equally threatening, and social upheavals can only get worse as disparities in income and opportunities continue to get wider. Many people won’t have anything to lose. They won’t have a stake in society.

For the past 30 years, since I wrote The Granite Garden, I’ve focused on restoring the natural environment of cities at the same time as rebuilding inner-city communities and educating and empowering young people who don’t have access to a high-quality education that will set them up for having a stake in society. Those are areas where I’ll continue to devote my efforts.

What has the last 30 years of your work with the West Philadelphia Landscape Project taught you about achieving social justice through environmental action in cities?

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which builds on work I did in Boston from 1984 to 86, has been an investigation into how to improve environmental equality and social equity at the same time. There are obstacles, but  I’ve learned that it’s not difficult to conceptualize issues and mobilize people. Then it’s just a matter of lining up the resources and getting the administrative framework in place. It’s possible. There are many great examples. In Philadelphia alone, there are many, from the Urban Tree Connection at the grassroots to the city government’s Green City Clean Waters program.

Designers are optimistic. People don’t go into landscape architecture to create a worse world or even to maintain the status quo. We are in this business because we want to make the world a better place. I’m really worried, but I also believe we can do it. It’s possible.

Much of your writing and photography has been focused on learning how to “read” a landscape. What do you mean by this phrase? How is that different from seeing a landscape?

It’s like the difference between merely looking at a picture and understanding how it was constructed and what it means. Landscapes are full of stories. There are natural histories: stories about how a place came to be in terms of its geology, climate, and plants. There are also political stories and folk stories and stories about memory and worship. People’s gardens hold their own stories. In shaping landscape, individuals and societies express  their values, beliefs, and ideas. All these stories are embedded in landscape, and they can be read.


Glen Loy, Scotland / Anne Whiston Spirn

Landscape literacy – the ability to read and tell such stories – is fundamental to being a landscape architect. I wrote my book The Language of Landscape because I realized that lack of fluency in the language of landscape was a barrier to more fluent and functional design, more expressive design, more eloquent design.

The West Philadelphia Landscape Project was a laboratory for working out ideas about the language of landscape and landscape literacy. It was extraordinary working with 12- and 13-year-olds in  Mill Creek, a low-income African-American neighborhood in West Philly, as they learned how to read that landscape.

So what was the best way to teach these kids landscape literacy?

Their neighborhood was called Mill Creek, but there wasn’t any creek you could see. My students showed them old maps, photographs, and other kinds of documents that described the neighborhood  at different historical periods from pre-colonial times to the present. Each week was a different period. Gradually, they came to understand through looking and investigating these old maps, newspaper articles, and planning documents that there was once this creek, Mill Creek. They found out that it was buried in a sewer and that there were cave-ins over the sewer. That’s where a lot of the vacant lands were, including in blocks  right around the school. The creek literally flowed right alongside where the school is located.


Buried Floodplain in Mill Creek, West Philadelphia / Anne Whiston Spirn

The children also learned about socioeconomic issues of the 1930s and political decisions that led banks to stop lending money for small businesses and home mortgages in their neighborhood. And they came to understand that their neighborhood today is the result of all these things that happened in the past.

Then they took the historical maps and went out to compare them with the present neighborhood and discovered: “Oh, my goodness, this huge vacant lot block was once six blocks, and there were houses here,” and, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a fire hydrant in the middle of these woods that grew up on these lots.” It really turned their whole attitude about their neighborhood around.


Learning Landscape Literacy at Sulzberger Middle School / Anne Whiston Spirn

Before learning to read its history, the children didn’t believe their neighborhood could ever change. When my students  had asked them how they would like to see their neighborhood in the future, they  had said, “Nothing’s going to change.” They were very cynical. After learning about its history, they began to say, “The neighborhood could change. It hasn’t always been the way it is. It could change in the future. Why couldn’t it? We know how it’s changed in the past.” Using that knowledge, what kinds of policies and actions could lead to change in the present?

About that time, I started reading Paulo Freire, who was a Brazilian community organizer. He developed literacy programs, for adults in poor, informal settlements in Brazilian cities. His findings about verbal literacy were exactly the same findings I was having in landscape literacy. He found that the most effective way to teach literacy was to collect oral histories of older people in the community, put them into text, and then teach people to read from those texts of the oral histories of their place.

So these kids were learning to read from the primary documents about their own neighborhood. The landscape itself became a primary document. They then became ambassadors. As a 12-13-year-old, to know more than the adults know is tremendously empowering. They went home and told their parents, “Guess what? This happened here and that happened there. See where that vacant land is? There was a creek there.” This is landscape literacy.

If I were working with those kids today, I’d also have them out taking photographs. My new book, The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, is a guide for using the camera as a tool to discover the stories that landscapes hold. Through photography, I want to inspire people to look deeply at the surface of things and beyond to the stories landscapes tell, the processes that shape human lives and communities and the earth itself. To pick up a camera and use it to see, think, and discover.

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Gardens by the Bay: Singapore / Livia Comandini, Getty Images

Gardens by the Bay: Singapore / Livia Comandini, Getty Images

The Slow Rebirth of Dumbarton Oaks Park The Washington Post, 12/17/14
“Given the magnitude of its slide and the limits of public and private funding, restoring the park has at times seemed like an impossible dream, but in 2010 a particularly determined group named the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy formed to take up the challenge.”

Planting for an Edible City – Metropolis POV, 12/22/14
“While these edible efforts are fairly new to New York City, the MillionTreesNYC’s fruit tree giveaway is an event to celebrate. Somewhere out there, across the five boroughs, the city has a new orchard that would comprise nearly 30 acres if planted collectively, approximating two Central Park Sheep Meadows.”

8 Incredible Green Spaces That Are Thriving In The Biggest Urban JunglesThe Huffington Post, 12/24/14
“Living and working within a system of architectural behemoths and concrete streets can be taxing, to say the least. And for many city-dwellers, a few patches of green can be a celebrated refuge from the urban landscape.”

The Biggest Arts Stories of 2014The Houston Chronicle, 12/26/14
“In October, the Hermann Park Conservancy unveiled the last major project of its long-term master plan – the spectacular $31 million John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Centennial Gardens. Along with landscape architect Doug Hoerr’s eight acres of theme gardens, dramatic 30-foot mount and nearly seven-acre, environmentally friendly parking lot, the project features a sensitively designed pavilion of glass, stone and stainless steel designed by Peter Bohlin.”

Architecture Future: How Buildings Will Begin to Make Our Lives Better The Denver Post, 12/28/14
“This holistic attitude is architecture’s greatest promise and seems to be steering trends. More and more, landscape architects are emerging as project leaders, devising how sites will be organized, used and maintained. These days, they might be the ones to hire building architects to complete their vision.”

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Metropolitan Zone of the Valley of Mexico, 66 miles wide and 68 miles long. Top: hydrology and agriculture. Below: hydrology and urban systems. The Texcoco Lakebed is the large blue area at center-right / INEGI topographic charts. Maps by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor.

Last September, the Mexican government announced the construction of a new airport for Mexico City. The current airport is the second busiest, per number of passengers, in Latin America, just after Sao Paolo, Brazil. The airport was recently declared to be at full capacity. It has two runways that cannot be operated simultaneously and it’s surrounded on three flanks –north, west, and south – by dense neighborhoods. Along its east site, the airport is adjacent to the Texcoco Lake bed. There is no more space for growth, so a new airport is needed.

The new airport master plan, as presented by Sir Norman Foster and Fernando Romero from Mexico, the architects who won an international design competition, is located just 5 miles north of the current airport and will occupy 17.5 square miles of the Texcoco lake bed. The remains of this formerly grand lake covers some 50 square miles. Spared by urbanization but partially used for agriculture, the lake bed has both permanent and temporary water bodies. Although miniscule in comparison to the original lake system, the lake bed sits at the lowest part of the basin, helping concentrate and infiltrate water, supporting the unstable soils of Mexico City. The lake remnant protects the city from more flooding. And the water it collects keeps the city afloat by infiltration.

Mexico City drinks more than half of its water from the valley of Mexico’s aquifer. This valley is a closed basin draining serviced, storm, and waste water towards the Gulf of Mexico via a deep and massive underground system. The load pressing on this desiccated, lake landscape, along with aquifer exploitation, has led to Mexico City actually subsiding by over 30 feet in its central area in the last century.

A recent public presentation about the new airport plan failed to discuss how the project will address these critical environmental issues and improve water quantity and quality, support soils, recover wildlife habitat, and create a regenerative relationship between the city and its lakes.

There are ways landscape architecture can be used to help the lake system recover. Among some existing concepts is Ciudad Futura (Future City) by Alberto Kalach, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, their Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) architecture students, and other collaborators. Published in La Ciudad y sus Lagos (The City and its Lakes) in 1998, this project proposes the recovery of the lacustrine system through the construction of infrastructure for water management and treatment, the definition of active lake edges, the creation of new public spaces, and the development of a new airport as an island in a regenerated Texcoco Lake.


The Future City / City of the Lakes project. The new airport as an island in the regenerated Texcoco Lake / Alberto Kalach, Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon, UNAM students, and other collaborators.

A more radical concept would be to turn the current airport into an ecological reserve and park, performing water and soil management and providing wildlife habitat. Parque Texcoco (Texcoco Park) by Iñaki Echeverria doesn’t address where to place a new airport though.


Texcoco Park. The recovered Texcoco Lake with no airports / Iñaki Echeverria

With the new airport plans, the Mexican government promises not only first-rate architecture but also a place that creates ecological value, largely through a 1,730-acre public forest. But it remains to be seen whether the new airport’s master plan project can create a reconciliation between the built and natural environments, and this project can become a global best practice from an under-developed country. The health of the underlying ecological systems must be considered. Let’s demand this happens.

This guest post is by Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, The University of Texas at Austin

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Projective Ecologies / Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Actar

Projective Ecologies, by Chris Reed, ASLA, founder of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and Nina-Marie Lister, Affil. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, is a timely overview of contemporary thinking about ecology and design. The book is organized conceptually, moving from critical foundations to the connections between nature and culture, the relationship between urban design and ecology, and, finally, to new ways of unifying ecology and design. Previously-published seminal essays in ecological and design theory are interspersed with new contributions, effectively reframing and clarifying some of the concepts explored in the landscape urbanism movement. Projective Ecologies uses ecology as a lens for understanding the role of design in a complex, interconnected, and changing world.

Reed and Lister describe how ecological thought has shifted from classical determinism — epitomized by the notion of linear ecological succession toward a stable climax state — to a complex systems approach in which ecological systems are interconnected, self-organizing, relatively unpredictable, and constantly changing. With this new thinking, human settlement is not separate from nature. Instead, human activity and nature are inextricably bound. Therefore, we can never successfully control ecological systems from a top-down perspective; we can only manage our own activities within them.

This shift in thinking demands new approaches to large-scale environmental design. What does it mean to design within a complex and dynamic ecological system? What constitutes success in ecological design when the end goal isn’t a predefined climax community?

When a successful system is no longer defined by a predictable, steady end state, Reed and Lister write, “adaptation, appropriation, and flexibility [become] understood as the hallmarks of ‘successful’ systems, and it is now widely accepted (if not fully understood) that it is through an ecosystem’s ability to respond to changing environmental conditions that persistence is possible.”

Now, instead of imposing order on an ecological system to achieve a desired end state, the designer works within the ecological system to guide it to a state of relative stability. A truly sustainable complex-systems approach to large-scale design involves the adaptive management of systems not entirely within our control. This approach may become more critical as global climate change threatens to destabilize and alter the ecological systems we depend upon.

Jane Wolff’s excellent contribution, “Cultural Landscapes and Dynamic Ecologies: Lessons from New Orleans,” explores the catastrophic failures of New Orleans’s infrastructure and flood control policies to align with the ecological reality of its dynamic delta environment. Notably, Wolff stresses the challenge of implementing a complex systems approach to flood management, writing: “Though design professionals and scholars have made a wide range of interesting proposals that capitalize on landscapes’ fluctuating tendencies, there has been much less conversation about the challenge of implementing such ideas.” Wolff stresses the need for public education about ecological problems in order to implement solutions, and suggests that in the case of New Orleans, the greatest barrier to implementing such an approach may be cultural.

I wished more of the essays explored these kinds of hurdles to implementing large-scale ecological design. Reed and Lister describe Projective Ecologies as the beginning of a more ambitious project, writing, “the bigger project initiated by this volume is to better and more critically understand both the context for and the implications of the various relationships that have developed between ecological and design thinking.”

Projective Ecologies lays out an effective course for designing within a complex and changing world, and, in this sense, it’s successful. As the project develops, the next step may be to consider strategies for implementation, including how to communicate the adaptive management of complex ecological systems to the general public.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Associate ASLA, designer, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, recent Louisiana State University Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, and former ASLA summer intern.

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