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Mark Simmons sets fires. He uses prescribed fires as a technique for land management to improve the ecological health of a system. These fires are carefully plotted and designed to self-extinguish. They are employed to control brush, which could feed wildfires, and selectively remove invasive species and restore native ones. Simmons is the director of the ecosystem design group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas. His team engages in scientific research, sustainable design, and environmental consulting.

American Indians on the plains also set fires. They used controlled burning to both attract and drive game, get rid of ticks, and harvest lizards and insects. Simmons says this practice demonstrates that they had a mutually influential relationship with nature. They melded the landscape and in turn were melded by it.

Americans today are found in different landscapes. We primarily occupy landscapes like suburban strip mall parking lots, which Simmons believes are dysfunctional and polluting. If these landscapes are melding us, then they may be adversely affecting our health and behavior. He believes that providing more green spaces could control epidemics like childhood obesity and ADHD.

In order to combat environmental and social hazards, Simmons wants to bring nature back into the built environment using ecological design. He envisions an “eco-metropolis” in which we keep, fix, and build using “nature’s technologies.” Simmons believes these approaches can inform techniques for land management and restoration, as well as the research and design of greenroofs and walls, rain gardens, sustainable lawns, and ecological roadsides.

Our current situation is about maintaing an “industrial, not ecological, system on life support,” Turf grass covers 40 million acres of land in the U.S., with 20 million acres just residential lawns. This landscape requires 580 million gallons of gasoline and up to 60 percent of urban fresh water to maintain. Desert communities have begun banning lawns out of necessity. Simmons finds gravel lots and other available alternatives lacking in both functionality and aesthetic quality. He is promoting alternatives that are sustainable, useful, and desirable.

Simmons grew up mowing his family’s lawn in England with a push mower. His dad no longer needs to mow because the lawn is now a multi-species landscape that has evolved into a stable ecological system that maintains itself. Inspired by this discovery, Simmons and his team created a biodiverse lawn made up of five native species that only has to be mowed two to three times a year and does not require pesticides or herbicides. There are eight acres planted at the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Simmons calls this “ecology 101 applied to landscape architecture.”

Landscapes like Simmons’s lawn that deploy nature’s technologies can perform critical functions like carbon sequestration, low level ozone absorption, and stormwater management.

Grasslands in fact provide the most efficient means of carbon sequestration. They absorb less carbon dioxide than boreal forests, but because they have evolved with fire and grazing, they store 95 percent of it below ground as insurance. In contrast, trees store carbon dioxide above ground in their trunks, branches, and leaves and release it back into the atmosphere when they die. In grasslands, when the roots die, the carbon melds with the physical and chemical structure of the soil and can be held there for hundreds of thousands of years.

These landscapes are also desirable. Simmons shares several examples of their success and growing popularity. Residents of a suburban tract in Austin, Texas liked the prairie that was planted along the perimeter so much that they requested it be continued through their yards. A homeowner who wanted a meadow constructed on his roof is so pleased with the result that he supports the idea of creating a preserve of the Texas blackland prairie ecosystem on roofs and along roadsides.

Simmons demonstrates that we can use nature differently. He encourages us to preserve nature but also feel liberated and empowered to use it more like we would engineering. “Nature’s technology is free and it’s waiting. All we have to do is bring nature home.”

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and former ASLA summer intern.

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“Philadelphia has the first and only EPA-approved green infrastructure plan,” said Mark Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and ASLA President, at the Dupont Summit, a meeting of the Policy Studies Organization in Washington, D.C. He said Philadelphia even needs to “train the EPA on how to evaluate our plan,” which provides a cutting-edge, low-cost approach for dealing with his city’s stormwater run-off problems.

A grey infrastructure system was estimated to cost more than $6 billion. The green infrastructure plan Philly is moving forward with will only cost $1.2 billion over 25 years. Some $800 million of that will go directly to green infrastructure projects in the city, while $200 million will go to further strengthening the city’s water treatment plants. Another $200 is reserved for “adaptive management,” which will address “future technological changes.” Focht said even if future mayors tried to undo this 25-year plan, they can’t. The agreement, which he emphasized is “not a consent decree,” has been signed.

Green infrastructure provides many benefits beyond cost savings. There’s a “triple bottom line effect,” with multiple environmental, social, and economic benefits. On environmental benefits side alone, the potential payoff is massive. Focht said the greening plan could absorb or help the city avoid  some 1.5 billion pounds of carbon dioxide annually, which is equal to removing 3,400 cars off the road. “This number will compound each year.” With improved air quality due to all the new trees, green roofs, and parks, communities will benefit on the social or health side, as well. Focht estimated 20 deaths due to asthma will be avoided, and 250 fewer work or school days will be missed. Deaths due to excessive urban heat could also be cut by 250 over 20 years. Lastly, the economic benefits are also outstanding: the new greenery will increase property values by $390 million over 45 years, also boosting the property taxes the city takes in. In the short term, all those green roofs and parks need to be constructed, creating 250 local green jobs.

Focht said in contrast to grey infrastructure, green infrastructure creates a wider range of jobs, with more opportunities for convicts reentering society. “Grey infrastructure really just employs engineers.” Green infrastructure benefits are immediate across all levels, while grey infrastructure has a “different curve” to kick-in and starting paying back.

Philadelphia’s new plan is based on the “greened acre.” According to Focht, “one greened acre is equivalent to one inch of managed stormwater from one acre of impervious drainage area, or 27,158 gallons of stormwater.” There’s even a formula: GA = IC * Wd. The city decided to come up with the greened acre concept to help communicate with the public about their goals over the coming decades. Over the next 25 years, Philadelphia wants to convert 9,600 impervious acres into permeable greened ones. That means 34 percent of the city’s now impervious surface (or 15 square miles) will become permeable.  Greened acres can include rain gardens, trees, green roofs, permeable pavements, and green “bump-outs.”

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To implement this bold vision, the Philadelphia water department has steered city investment in city-owned properties in a greener direction and set the standards for all new construction projects. There’s a green streets design manual that shows how permeable pavements should function. Focht said one street just put in had no drains. The water simply drains down into the permeable asphalt and the earth.

Strong new regulations will also move the private sector to act. “Water bills are now based on how much water you use and manage.” One site with huge amounts of paved areas saw their water bill shoot up from $400 a month to more than $2,500, while another with no paved surfaces saw their bill go from $4,700 to $100. Focht made a point of saying that “the new regulations are not a revenue generator.” But there are clearly winners and losers. “Losers include big box retailers, retail malls, and car dealerships.”

Focht said, if smart, a condo could put on a green roof and get its water bill to zero. To push buildings to go this route, the city is offering a range of grants and loans modeled after NYC’s program. “If a project increases the visibility of green infrastructure, it also gets more credits.”

For the parks department, the new green infrastructure plan is a bonanza, creating opportunities for lots of new multi-functional green spaces. The parks department is already racing ahead: One new playground is 92 percent permeable, with new permeable pavements and plants. As a big plus, the neighbors love the pavement because it also absorbs the sound of basketballs bouncing. Green schools are coming. There’s even a green homes program that provides small grants to volunteer, non-profit groups to teach homeowners how to capture their own runoff.

One exciting project, deemed the “big green project,” shows how these green infrastructure tactics can coalesce into larger systems. The new Kensington Creative + Performing Arts High School, which is LEED Platinum, has green roofs, rainwater cisterns, and an underground detention facility. Surrounding it is a newly permeable sports area, a “geothermal well field,” and tree trenches.

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So how did Philadephia make this happen, forming a partnership among so many different city agencies when so many other cities have failed to accomplish this? Focht said a “strong mayor” was central, as well as “city-wide planning framework that enabled real partnerships.” Focht also mentioned how many people leading agencies now came up together through the ranks. When he and others were all middle managers at agencies, they formed an extra-curricular working group to discover how they could collaborative on green space, water management, and public health. Those efforts eventually bubbled up into Philadelphia’s 2009 GreenWorks plan.

Importantly, Focht said green infrastructure initiatives have retained public support because city officials have made a point of making “the same investment in every neighborhood,” rich or poor.

To learn more, download Focht’s full presentation (7MB) and also read a report ASLA co-wrote with a number of organizations, Banking on Green: How Green Infrastructure Saves Municipalities Money and Provides Economic Benefits Community-wide.

Image credits: (1-2)  7th and Washington / Philadephia Parks & Recreation, (3) Expanded tree pit / Philadelphia Water department, (4) Kensington High School / Paul Rider

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At the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Mies Van Der Rohe in the mid-80s, there were tons of news stories, books, and conferences about the legacy of that great architect. But Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), said nothing would have been done for famed Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley on his 100th, unless he and his organization had stepped up to honor him. At the opening of a new photography exhibition on the work of Kiley at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), Birnbaum said Kiley was only second to Frederick Law Olmsted in terms of the number of his landscapes that have been added to the national register of historic places.

In this exhibition, we see 27 of his 1,000 works of landscape architecture. The vast majority are in the U.S. but one remarkable landscape, L’Esplanade du Charles De Gaulle, leads up to La Defense in Paris. Newly-commissioned photographs were taken by some of the best landscape photographers, including Alan Ward, FASLA, who is also a partner at Sasaki Associates.

Birnbaum said it was important to document these landscapes so they don’t “die silent deaths.” He added that writing about Kiley is crucial to “making his legacy visible. It’s really a case of publish or perish.”

For Cornelia Oberlander, FASLA, the grand-dame of Canadian landscape architecture and a Kiley firm alumna, the Esplanade in Paris shows “how he brought the grandiose nature of structure into the landscape.” Pointing at a photo of the project, she said, “that’s Paris. It’s brilliant.”

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She said Kiley was inspired by 17th century French landscape designer Andre Le Notre, who laid out gardens with structural forms like grids and allees.  For her, Kiley’s legacy is taking that French structure and applying it to Modern landscapes everywhere. She said his genius was using a Modern approach to create a “classical feeling.”

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Oberlander’s favorite Kiley landscape is the Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana, which is viewed as his residential masterpiece. She said “this shows a new way of thinking, a new way of living in the garden.”

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Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, principal of Reed Hilderbrand, believes the best word to characterize Kiley is “itinerant,” given his constant travels across the U.S. creating so many works of landscape. He said Kiley was “deeply committed to landscape architecture.”

While he said cultures change – so most landscapes will not even last a hundred years – many of Kiley’s landscapes should live on, at least in some form. One he highlighted was the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, home to the famous arch by Saarinen. “The origins of that design need to remain in some form.”

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His favorite Kiley work is Fountain Place in Dallas, which he has to visit every time he goes to that city. “It’s otherworldy.”

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And how does he sum up Kiley’s legacy? “Kiley’s work transcends his era.” His landscapes go beyond Modernism. “There is an essential quality.”

Explore all the Kiley projects and photos online or buy a gallery guide.

Image credits: (1) Patterns / Roger Foley, (2-3) L’Esplanade du Charles de Gaulle / David Bacher, (4) Miller Garden / Millicent Harvey, (5) Jefferson National Expansion Memorial / David Johnson, (6) Fountain Place / Alan Ward.

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Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley
is a new book about American gardens of the northeast by Jane Garmey, a noted garden writer born in England and now living in New York and Norfolk, Connecticut. The 28 gardens featured are found in private estates to the east of the Hudson River, an area whose famed scenery Garmey appropriately describes as “inherently dramatic.” She has selected gardens whose creators, a mix of garden designers by profession and others who have made it a passionate occupation, primarily seek to create a private paradise while enhancing the remarkable qualities of the existing landscape.

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Garmey chose the properties according to the following criteria: “I find myself drawn to gardens with age and maturity, and especially to those that strongly reflect the sensibility of their owners.” As her descriptions and the accompanying photographs reveal, the properties, ranging from 50 to 500 acres, display a range of gardens. Garmey emphasizes the use of trees and plants — and their unique qualities of texture and color and their capacity to transform and define space. She also strongly notes the element of time. Many of the gardens are lifelong projects that are slowly developing and always changing.

Several of the gardens are in keeping with the tradition of the older properties they occupy. Some property owners, admirers of 18th Century English garden design, have taken cues from famous places like Stourhead and Stowe. Several of the gardens feature planting designs that enhance the existing landscape and appear effortless and natural. Their spatial configurations encourage meandering walks punctuated by views of expansive vistas. Some even include classical temples, statues, and follies.

These elements are especially visible at Altamont, a 500 acre property in Millbrook with a vast parkland that includes streams, marshland, forest, and a succession of lakes and ponds. The formal garden adjacent to the house has four-walled areas planted with different themes. A ha-ha creates a seamless transition from the formal garden to the surrounding landscape.

A few of the gardens are located on properties with modern additions. A similar grandeur is achieved with landscaping suited to that aesthetic. In these cases, the property owners have sought to complement as well as soften the style and scale of the architecture. For a geometric house in Clinton Corners, plantings reinforce the garden’s rectilinear quality while muting its overall effect. Eunymous blankets the terraced garden and masses of bamboo help to partition space and create privacy. A maze-garden houses a sculpture collection within arborvitae hedging that humanizes the space and softens the surrounding metal walls. Beyond the cultivated area, a 360-degree view captures the expanse of wilderness, delineated from the property by only a boundary of stone walls.

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Garden features express the unique sensibilities of their creators. Transitional spaces between the cultivated grounds and the larger landscape are important elements. Many of the properties employ methods to de-emphasize this transition, utilizing a ha-ha or a discreet fencing element to create the separation. One property in Amenia, however, accentuates the change with an engaging progression of enclosed spaces defined by stone walls and hedges that distinguish between the formal garden and the wilderness beyond.

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In one exceptional property in Millerton, the owner constructed a rock garden made from 60 tons of stone from a bluestone quarry near Albany. The garden is planted with thyme, euphorbia, sedums, and various other plants using a Japanese technique of repeating the same arrangement of colors and plants varied across different scales.

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Also, nearly all of the properties include a productive aspect, such as an orchard or kitchen garden. A 200 acre property in Rhinebeck houses a remarkable version. The property owner, Amy Goldman, is an advocate of heirloom fruits and vegetables. She has devoted one acre to an enclosed productive garden that serves as a laboratory for her research on different varieties. She hand-pollinates squashes and grows 20 different kinds of watermelon. At the time of publication, she had plans to cultivate 250 varieties of peppers from both the old and new world for research on a book.

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Each garden in Garmey’s selection displays a unique appeal. The unifying principle among them is that they have been joyfully created, which is apparent in their perceived effortless. An important detail to note, however, is that despite the ease of their appearance, achieving their stature is no small feat. As Garmey notes, “In England, the English have gardens. Americans, as I have now learned, make theirs.”

While the English countryside enjoys mild weather and a gentle grade, the Hudson valley at times presents an intractable canvas. The 360-view for the house in Clinton Corners necessitated the clearing of 200 acres of steeply wooded land. Likewise, on a property in Craryville, the owner spent several years clearing the dense woods above a rock ledge measuring 180 by 45 feet. Today, it’s a primary feature of the garden showcasing lichen, moss, sedums, and birch trees.

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Regardless of their intensiveness, the gardens are clearly worth the effort for those who create them. As the book demonstrates, these places are personal expressions, some decades in the making, of passionate interest and individual taste. In Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley, Garmey’s selection captures these unique expressions against a remarkable backdrop.

Explore the book.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, former ASLA summer intern and recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania.

Image credits: Monacelli Press

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Suburbia Transformed 3.0, a new residential landscape design competition sponsored by the James Rose Center for Landscape Architectural Research and Design, aims to identify new residential works that “go beyond ‘green’ to address the aesthetic quality of human experience.” The goal is to show how “such sustainable landscapes can be beautiful, inspiring, perhaps profound; and serve as examples for transforming the suburban residential fabric, one garden at a time.”

The organizers seek both “built and visionary (unbuilt) residential landscapes” from both professionals and students. While there are no monetary prizes offered, winners will become part of a publication and traveling exhibition.

According to the James Rose Center, “James Rose is remembered as one of three Harvard students who rebelled against their Beaux Arts training in the 1930s, helping to usher landscape architecture—kicking and screaming—into the modern era. Yet somewhere after Harvard and well into the real world, Rose lost faith in the modern planning and design professions he had helped to inspire. By the mid 1950s, he had retreated from public practice and spent most of the latter part of his career designing private gardens that were in direct contrast to the environmental excess and cultural banality of the emerging contemporary post-WWII suburb.”

Rose called his private gardens, which were made with found objects, recycled materials, and native plants, “space-sculptures-with-shelters.” His novel approach had a purpose: to merge a “conservation ethic into a modern design aesthetic.” Rose’s point was that a place needed to be beautiful in order to be sustained (and sustainable).

To succeed in this competition, which is based on Rose’s philosophy, designers will need to:

  • “Make the most of what’s already on the site (earth, rocks, plants, structures, water) before importing or removing anything.
  • Use local, inexpensive, low-energy-consumptive, non-polluting materials and construction techniques before others.
  • Consider the landscape’s potential to create useful resources rather than consume them.
  • Consider the relationship of the site to larger environmental systems.
  • Consider means for guiding future growth and evolution of the garden.”

The competition is open to landscape architects, landscape designers, architects, individuals, teams or firms. Students will be considered in a separate category.

The high-profile jury of landscape architects include: Andrea Cochran FASLA, Principal, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture; Tobiah Horton, LEED AP, Assistant Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; David Kamp, FASLA, LF, NA, Dirtworks; Keith LeBlanc, FASLA, Keith LeBlanc Landscape Architecture, Inc.; and Darrel Morrison, FASLA, Ecological Landscape Design and Management.

Entry forms are due by February 18, 2014, with submissions due by March 20. To submit, the fee for professionals is $115 and $50 for students.

Check out previous winners, too.

Image credit: Suburbia Transformed 2.0 winner / James Rose Center

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Garden Park Community Farm
is a new coffee table book by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW). The book highlights some of their recent and best designs, but also showcases their philosophy as landscape architects, one that “encourages a responsiveness to the environment through artful design and ecological narratives that connect people to place.”

The book begins with introductions by Warren Byrd, FASLA, and Thomas Woltz, FASLA, and with essays by University of Virginia landscape architecture professor Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA. Writing in their introductions, NBW’s design philosophy is clear: beautiful, site-specific, sustainable design accomplished through close dialogue and communication with architects, artists, engineers, scientists and residents, which adds “depth to the design process.” Of this site-specific approach, Woltz writes they “map the tangible qualities and inherent energies,” even beyond the confines of the site to create a “dynamic framework that often informs the design gesture.”

Indeed, this in-depth and thoughtful reading of sites, combined with a clear passion to create ecologically sustainable and healthy landscapes, results in some of the firm’s most successful projects, twelve of which are highlighted in the book.

Divided into four parts, with three case studies per section, Meyer’s essays set the scene for the lush images that follow, explaining design decisions and choices of plant material. But make no mistake, this book isn’t just about the creation of beautiful places. Woltz is clear when he states the aim of the book: They “hope to increase public understanding that the designed landscape is a powerful tool for implementing ecology and for telling stories of the land that promote stewardship.”

As one might guess from the title, the works in this book range in scope and scale from an intimate roof top garden in New York City to a massive restoration project in New Zealand, all the while skillfully defining these landscapes with a language of “abstraction, place-making, and memory that was inclusive of horticulture, but not limited to it.”

NBW’’s gardens play with their borders, simultaneously remaining distinct while artfully blending the edges, as seen in the garden at Iron Mountain House. As Meyer says, they exemplify the paradox of “all great gardens – that they exist as other spaces, separate from the world, while simultaneously referring to their sites and milieus.”

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Frequently employing “narrative in their projects as a tool for imbuing meaning,” NBW seeks to connect many elements into a thriving whole. Citygarden in St. Louis, Missouri, is hugely successful at this, with its “abundant references to geology, hydrology and local botany,” all while creating an experiential place where residents and visitors both gather and create community.

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The creation of community is important to the firm, who recognize that all “the landscapes between buildings –- whether streets, alleys, parks, plazas, quadrangles, or courtyards -– are social spaces,” and that the quality of the built environment will affect the “range and quantity of interactions” between residents. WaterColor, which won an ASLA general design award in 2003, focuses on these spaces between, creating shared communal areas, while paying careful attention to the restoration and protection the surrounding ecology.

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Both Woltz and Byrd cite the natural world and rural landscapes as major influences on their path to studying and practicing landscape architecture, so it’s no surprise that their firm creates and preserves rural landscapes and farmlands. Landscape architects have historically looked to agricultural landscapes for design inspiration, but as Meyer writes, “few landscape architects have consciously taken on the shaping, transformation, and reformation of actual rural agricultural landscapes in the manner currently practiced by NBW.”

Their work in this realm integrates issues of “plant and animal biodiversity and watershed quality” to create landscapes that “express a community’s health and function, as well as its productivity.” For example, Medlock Ames, a winery project, makes a strong case for the “aesthetic possibilities of sustainable practices on a domestic scale.”

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Byrd writes that the projects highlighted in Garden Park Community Farm were “borne of a desire to affirm life and to assure healthy, vital environments.” This book showcases the aesthetic and sustainable possibilities when landscape architects practice with a focus on not only making beautiful things, but ecologically-sound places.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.

Read the book.

Image credits: Princeton Architectural Press

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What does it take to not only slow the spread of sprawl but also fundamentally change how we design and build communities? And how do we “unsprawl” communities that have already been built? A new book from our friends at Planetizen, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces and Places, by Simmons Buntin, editor of Terrain.org and Ken Pirie, who works for Walker Macy Landscape Architects, proves that there are better ways to build communities. But this isn’t a book about sprawl: It’s a book about built places, “real, human scale communities by people and for people, not cars.”

In the introduction, Galina Tachieva states, “sprawl as a built habitat has been failing for decades.” With the recent economic downturn, the fundamental inadequacies of sprawl have become apparent. The new push to “unsprawl” is a movement towards an urbanism we can all afford — one in which amenities are located centrally and walkable, where the built is balanced with the natural.

While there are clear reasons why we need to unsprawl, this is a focused how-to book. Exploring all aspects of a project from concept to design and through to its execution, there are lots of details about how projects were financed and built. We also learn about the successes and failures along the path to that “particular moment when a project becomes a true place.”

Each case study covered in the book has an accompanying question and answer section with someone who is intimately involved in the design and development of the community. Case studies of various scales are organized into four sections: new communities; in-fill and grayfield development; the redevelopment of downtowns; and examples of “green” development.

The new communities section shows that good urban design is doable in both rural and suburban communities, places that have been historically car-focused. The authors believe we can build “new and distinct places that respect the economy and heritage” of that place. One new community, Prospect New Town, located south of Longmont, Colorado, was built with a mixed-use, eclectic design aesthetic and was voted “America’s Coolest Neighborhood” by Dwell magazine.

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In the in-fill and greyfield section, the authors ask: what we do when the existing form and function of our communities cease to serve us? Do we rebuild from scratch or find “innovative ways to adapt to changing social, environmental and economic circumstances?” Built on the site of Rockville, Maryland’s vacant mall, a new town square “created a daytime, evening, and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.”

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Buntin and Pirie acknowledge that wonderful things have been torn down in and around American cities, ranging from “native ecosystems to historic neighborhoods” but believe that replacing what doesn’t work with “dedicated planning, good urban design, and hard work” can turn redeveloped areas into “intentional and integral parts of their respective downtowns.”

For example, RiverPlace in Portland, Oregon, the initial development of which was possible through the city council’s 1976 decision to remove the six-lane freeway that separated the city from the Wilmette River, showcases an “early and ongoing example” of these principles in action.

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In the green development section, the authors feature a few projects with especially strong sustainable credentials. The authors state: “successful, sustainable communities are not a goal to be achieved, but a process to be followed and revised: an essential pursuit if we hope to build places that will last on landscapes that will last even longer.” One such example of a green development is Prairie Crossing, in Grayslake, Illinois, north of Chicago. Prairie Crossing is transit-based, energy efficient, and community focused. The project “began as a commitment from conservation-minded investors who sought to preserve and restore native prairie and farmland being lost to suburbanization.”

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The case studies provide us with an “optimistic, diverse, and common-sense direction for the future,” one in which people, and their walkable communities, live in harmony with the natural world.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Unsprawl / Planetizen, (2) Live/work streetscape, Prospect, Colorado / Simmons Buntin, (3) Rockville Town Square / Simmons Buntin, (4) RiverPlace’s South Water Front Park / Walker Macy, (5) Prairie Crossing / Prairie Holdings Corporation

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Image 1 Talk About Contemporary Gardens
A good place to start is the beginning, which in this case is to define a garden. This is what Chantel Colleu-Dumond does in her book, Talk About Contemporary Gardens, when she recalls the words of philosopher Michel Foucault who said, “The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.” Colleu-Dumond brings us into this totality as she explores contemporary garden design. Her deep love of gardens is apparent here. Her writing feels warm and her passion for the subject is clear. She says “this is an acceptable addiction and I am gently hooked.”

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There is a “pluri-disciplinality” in contemporary garden design that allows landscape architects and designers, along with artists, architects, and designers, to become involved in the creation of the gardens the author highlights. This pluri-disciplinality adds to the diversity of ideas, innovative practices, and mash-up of seemingly-dissimilar styles that characterize contemporary gardens. Colleu-Dumond knows that trying to make sense of all of it may be hard to handle when she says, “You just need to let yourself be astonished, charmed, and carried along by the magic of these new spaces to live and dream in, these spots for traveling without going anywhere that gardens have become. The aim of this book is to accompany you on that journey.”

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Indeed, this book could be used as a travel guide. Colleu-Dumond has gathered a list of 24 contemporary gardens that she considers “must-sees.” These gardens range from the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, Morrocco, which was designed by Jacques Majorelle, a French painter, to the Jardins de l’Imaginaire (Gardens of the Imagination) in Terrasson, France, designed by American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, and the Red Sand Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne in Cranbourne, Australia, which was designed by Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Paul Thompson, two landscape artists. These must-see gardens all over the world offer something for everyone.

Image 4 Marjorelle Garden allindesign
Image 5 Jardins de l'Imaginaire flickr
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Talk About Contemporary Gardens can also be used as primer for design students. There’s a chapter dedicated to the 30 influential landscape architects, artists, and designers whose work Colleu-Dumond thinks best epitomize the range and depth of contemporary gardens. She gives a brief biography, a summary of the designer’s body of work, and, perhaps, most interestingly, their philosophy and design approach. Dutch garden designer, Piet Oudolf, who did the planting design for the popular High Line in New York and Chicago’s Lurie Garden, is well known for his “in-depth knowledge of plants,” and plays “like a painter with plant structures and textures just as well as with their colors.”

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This is contrasted with the philosophy of a designer like American landscape architect, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, who is known for her plantless gardens. Schwartz is “critical of the artificial nature of urban gardens” and makes us reconsider our standard idea of a garden. The only greenery in her Splice Garden is artificial topiary. Her garden is a combination of a traditional Italian Renaissance garden and a Japanese Zen garden.

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Colleu-Dumond recognizes that the key to understanding contemporary gardens is knowledge of garden design history, so she has a chapter on classic styles and their present incarnations. For example, the contemporary gardens of Japanese landscape architect and Zen Buddhist monk Shunmyo Masuno are “linked in tradition and yet perfectly grounded in today’s world.”

Image 9 Kojimachi Kaikan Zen Garden Michael Freeman Photography
There are a number of ways to take advantage of this book, not least of which is to flip through and enjoy the pictures. Talk About Contemporary Gardens is a gorgeous book, jam packed with beautiful photographs of the gardens that Chantal Colleu-Dumond clearly loves.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, ASLA 2013 summer intern and Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)

Image credits: (1) Book cover / Flammarion, (2) Mas de Les Voltes / pinterest, (3) Cheveux d’Ange (Angel Hair) Garden / jardipedia.com, (4) Marjorelle Garden / allindesign.com, (5) Jardins de l’Imaginaire / flickr, (6) Red Sand Garden / flickr, (7) Lurie Garden / cityinagarden.com, (8) Splice Garden / flickr, (9) Kojimachi Kaikan Zen garden / Michael Freeman Photography

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The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society just organized a conference on Civic Horticulture in Philadelphia. Three panels of leading landscape architects discussed the organizational, aesthetic, and productive potential of horticulture. They explained how it is shaping contemporary civic spaces. They presented on three major topics: The Street, Productive Gardens, and Parks and Plazas. Through their own projects, these design leaders showed how these types of places are evolving to meet the needs of cities today.

Productive gardens have become increasingly popular components of the urban landscape. Unused green space and vacant land are often repurposed to grow fresh food for urban dwellers. Panelists discussed ways to enhance these efforts and foster other productive uses of civic spaces. New partnerships provide opportunities to examine larger-scale food production, community-based development, and ecological services. The performative qualities of plants make horticulture an essential part of these explorations.

The Productive Garden

Landscape architect Elena Brescia, ASLA, partner at SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, described cities as “environmental and cultural systems where landscape, beyond formal, economic, and aesthetic interests, can generate a critical participatory effect among citizens.” Landscape offers new ways of intervening in city fabric at the local level using stewardship, grassroots participation, and neighborhood identity as generators of community-based change. SCAPE has experimented with projects both imagined and real that explore this dynamic and the broader potential of what it means to be “productive.” For Brescia, productivity stems not only from a horticultural basis but from a participatory and programatic standpoint as well.

SCAPE’s project, Oyster-tecture, part of the MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibition in 2010, proposed a self-generative, multi-layered, and multi-functional system rooted in oyster production for Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal (see image above). Oysters are native to the canal and were once an important food source in the community. They filter water and naturally agglomerate into reefs. They have the potential to clean the canal’s polluted waters and attenuate waves, addressing issues with water quality and rising tides.

With Oyster-tecture, SCAPE proposed to transform a historically relevant food source into a tool for generating ecological resilience and community-based development. The project argues that the reef armature fabricated from a series of piles supporting woven ropes can provide the oysters with an initial place to grow and propagate. They will eventually form a series of new reef islands that will provide food and habitat for other animals as well as areas for work, research, and recreation for the surrounding community.

SCAPE’s work on the 103rd Street Community Garden in East Harlem also expands on notions of productivity. Completed in partnership with the Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, it’s a positive model for a community garden. The project is both a small-scale agricultural system supported by cultivation plots and rainwater capture and a series of play spaces that accommodate a variety of age groups and activities within a small site. It was a productive catalyst for block revitalization and community participation and has become a neighborhood asset. SCAPE also conceptualized and designed the project so it could be built mostly by local volunteers.

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Re-imagining Victory Gardens

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, landscape planner and principal at Mia Lehrer + Associates, provided a definition of “civic horticulture” as “community gardening.” For Lehrer, who focuses much of her work on food production, horticulture is about education and empowerment. Productive gardens and their related systems and infrastructure have the potential to rectify the disconnect between disadvantaged urban communities and their food sources.

The prevalence of food deserts in urban environments has been growing. These food deserts have contributed to the escalating obesity epidemic. Unsettling statistics show the rate of U.S. children contracting chronic health conditions related to obesity more than doubling, from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006. A majority of these children are located in impoverished parts of the inner city, which lack access to fresh food. Many of them do not know where their food comes from or how it is made. Lehrer believes that education and empowerment are imperative to addressing this “Does ketchup grow on trees?” scenario. Landscape architects can play an important role in designing places and systems that help people better connect to their personal health because their “work is about many things, including place, making, healing, beauty, people, cities.”

Lehrer’s practice is experimenting with the “S, M, L, XL” scales of productive gardens, from residential to commercial farming, in Los Angeles. Urban agriculture in the city is moving beyond the scale of the traditional victory garden to consider the larger urban environment and regional food distribution systems. Though the vast surrounding agricultural region produces 50 percent of the fresh fruit and vegetables for the United States and Canada, the city keeps only 1 percent of it and imports the rest. Transforming this “outside-in” strategy to an “inside-out” one requires a reevaluation of the policies that currently structure food distribution, including everything from large-scale agricultural systems to zoning regulations for residential productive gardens and provisions for bartering and selling homegrown food. Lehrer’s “Small” projects include a community garden for the Jordan Downs Housing Project with enough acreage to successfully meet the needs of the entire neighborhood. MAS (“more”), an “extra large” project, is a non-profit food distribution service that designs farmers markets with a focus on providing equal access to fresh local food.

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Regardless of the scale and intention, horticulture is an important feature of each project. Fresh food production brings people into contact with the plants that support their basic health. However, not all of Lehrer’s interest in civic horticulture is explicitly about food production. Unique and performative aspects of plants are utilized in other projects. A five-acre “outdoor collection” for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles features a growing wall and an abundance of both native and non-native plants chosen to attract the most species possible. At Orange County Great Park, lima bean fields are remediating a disturbed portion of land. These “medium” and “large” projects demonstrate some of the other productive potential of plants in civic spaces.

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From City Beautiful to City Functional

Thomas Woltz, FASLA, landscape architect and principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW), believes that “horticultural acts are civic acts.” Attitudes toward gardening and plant cultivation vary dramatically and the methodologies used can have significant implications, both positive and negative, for communities, wildlife, and public health. It’s critical to the contemporary practice of landscape architecture to cultivate responsible management strategies, plant choices, and design goals. These can help establish new definitions of productivity that can in turn create “hybridized concepts of gardens, agriculture, and restoration ecology.”

The projects of NBW reflect a desire to respect aesthetic quality while establishing valuable habitat in order to engender a public sense of stewardship and investment in the landscape. Projects are developed with the purpose of fostering a “new form of civic horticulture combining pleasure with responsibility.” Woltz sees civic horticulture as having developed from the City Beautiful to the “City Functional.” He posits that “the next step might focus on productive gardens that operate at the scale of performative urban landscape systems.” NBW has been working with scientists, ornithologists, and conservation biologists to develop rigorous designs that are not only beautiful but also “envisioned with an idea of productivity with an ecological resonance.”

For Woltz, ecological services are a critical part of any landscape’s productivity, regardless of scale. NBW designed a small biodiversity garden for a Manhattan residence that emphasized the creation of bird habitat. Planted with pollinator attractors and nesting and feeding niches, the garden at the Carnegie Hill House is a haven for several species of birds and butterflies. It meets the family’s needs as well with features like a secluded seating area, a sandbox for children, and a green wall for herbs. The design won an ASLA Professional Design Honor Award for successfully creating “a tiny outpost of a much bigger adjacent landscape.”

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A larger project at the Medlock Aimes Winery and Tasting Room in Sonoma, California combines ecological services with larger-scale food production. For the biodynamic, organic, solar-powered winery’s outdoor tasting room, NBW designed a productive garden tailored to pairings for tastings. It’s coupled with a stormwater management system. The variety of plantings include native rushes in the swales and an old-growth olive grove transplanted to the site for conservation.

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NBW also designed a more traditional productive garden for a public housing complex in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Urban Farm engages residents in growing organic vegetables in the underutilized green space in their community. Residents work by the hour in exchange for tickets they can trade in for fresh produce. The surplus is sold at farmers markets. One extraordinary feature is that the plots are maintained entirely through rain harvested water capture.

This is part two of a three part series on the Civic Horticulture conference. Read part three, Parks and Plazas

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, former ASLA summer intern and recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania.

Image credits: (1) Oyster-tecture / SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, (2) 103rd Street Community Garden in East Harlem / Melissa C. Morris blog, (3) Jordan Downs Housing Project Community Garden / Mia Lehrer + Associates, (4) Orange County Great Park Urban Farm / Mia Lehrer + Associates, (5) Carnegie Hill House by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Eric Piasecki, (6) Medlock Aimes Winery and Tasting Room / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

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“It took me two years to find the stones for this project,” says Dennis Bracale, a landscape designer based on Mount Desert Island, Maine, while giving a lecture at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Image after image showcased Bracale’s work on private gardens. The talk showed the audience the artistic heights landscape architecture can achieve when time and monetary constraints aren’t an issue.

The crux of Bracale’s philosophy is an image of a stone Buddha with a carved flowing robe framed by two stones, one of which accents the robes with its own layered flow pattern. That philosophy is the skillful combining of rough nature (found objects made through geologic and biologic processes) with refined nature (objects modified through craft) to create meditative spaces.

With a client base primarily on Mount Desert Island, Bracale knows his fellow islanders move to and stay on the island for the natural beauty of the location. Helping a client form a relationship with the landscape is his mission. His work results in meditative spaces that amplify yet seamlessly blend into the surrounding landscape. Scale is critical, Bracale says, and the design must be an echo of the surrounding site. If there are large stones in the background, he says to place large stones in the foreground. Making the land sing requires design at the scale of the land, not the scale of the person. Designing in this way brings the grandeur of the surrounding landscape right to the front door, immersing the client in the idealized extension of the native milieu.

Bracale’s design ethos is fed by his study of philosophy, ecology, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the garden traditions of Japan and China. His travels abroad have influenced his style, as have his experiences with calligraphy and craft. Calligraphy is incorporated both as a concept of energy flow and also as an inspiration for paths through the gardens. Craft, most notably Japanese joinery, is highlighted in all of his construction. “A project is only as good as its details,” he says, as he shows the assembly of an Alaskan yellow cedar arbor without nails.

While his most frequently used wood is from Alaska, his stone and plant choices are predominantly local to Maine. Most notably, the stone he chooses is granite from the “scrap pile” at the base of old quarries, whose workers used to roll any imperfect stones out to the edge. Imperfect and weathered stone is what Bracale is after, giving his projects the appearance of age at completion. Bracale’s planting style is romantic with lush, texture-rich arrangements of primarily native plants that capitalize on the never-freezing-never-hot climate of the Maine coast. His goal is to take the site’s natural features “up a notch.”

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Bracale, who takes pictures of his works in progress from all perspectives, talks of sitting on his bed, examining the images night after night, noting the adjustments to make on the next trip to the site. “Sometimes,” he says, “that can mean adjusting a giant rock just two inches.” While others working on the site may think this sounds crazy, they’ve learned to trust the eye of the composer.

This guest post is by Sarah Schramm, Student ASLA, Master of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia.

Image credits: (1-2) Mount Desert Island gardens by Denis Bracale / Real in Darien

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