A Guide to Drones for Landscape Architects

Drone Technology in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction / Wiley

By Chris S. Sherwin, ASLA

The rise of consumer-friendly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have enabled landscape architecture firms to take advantage of new technologies and digital processing previously been out of reach. The growing availability of drones for designers makes the new book Drone Technology in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction by two landscape architects — Daniel Tal, FASLA, and Jon Altschuld, ASLA — a timely addition to any firm’s library.

The book enables a landscape architecture firm with little drone experience to understand step by how to work a drone and the opportunities and obstacles with owning and operating one. Tal and Altschuld have transformed a complex and obscure subject into accessible content. The book is meant to be read in a sequential manner: each chapter builds upon the other and offers resources for further study.

Tal and Altschuld begin the book by explaining the rapid transformation of UAVs from a military tool to hobby radio-controlled aircraft. Consumer-level drones enable design professionals and clients to better understand the environment from the bird’s eye view. Drones offer unlimited potential for imagery and photogrammetry within a 3D modeling environment and are an important tool for communicating how a proposed design can impact sites.

The risks and shortfalls of drone technology are outlined through an exploration of the difference between good looking data and good data. With new low-cost drones, site scanning often involves just pressing a couple of buttons on an app and setting the site parameters. A user can produce a very detailed and good looking data set without understanding how these technologies function. This can be a hindrance to producing good data.

A new drone user needs to understand that producing a precise and correct data set involves a deeper understanding of drone technology, surveying, and photogrammetry processing. An accurate model requires knowledge of how to set ground control points, provide specific camera angles in relation to the site being surveyed, and set a steady and continuous ground sampling distance from the site as the drone surveys the property. Fortunately, all of these areas are thoroughly covered by the authors.

Stunning drone images from past projects make for great marketing materials on future projects. / Daniel Tal

The book further explores how to effectively use drone data visualization as a project life-cycle tool. Chapters explain the costs necessary for staff training, examinations, and certifications; purchasing an appropriate drone; the software needed for flight, video and photo recording, photogrammetry; and insurance prior to your first flight.

Drone and 3D model overlay image of the 39th Avenue Greenway concept in Denver, Colorado. / DHM Design

Documentation, permissions, and licensing are also explored in-depth. The authors review the legal rules pertaining to consumer and commercial drone operations. Most importantly, they cover the Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, which is known as 14 CFR Part 107, or in industry parlance the Part 107 exam. This exam is a crucial step in becoming a full-fledge drone operator in the design professions. Another vital step before becoming a commercial operator is understanding the permissions required through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system, which allows for a relatively quick and seamless on-line process to gain permission before flying on site.

Proper documentation needs to be carried at all times. These documents include insurance certificates, your remote pilot license (Part 107), UAS registration, and a log of your flight operations. This documentation is key should something go wrong during your flight, and it is always a good rule of the thumb to be prepared for the worst case scenario.

Through the book, readers will gain an understanding of best flying practices, which many will gain with experience over time, and the importance of an appropriate safe flying mindset, such as developing a procedure for flight operations prior to, during, and at the conclusion of the flight. Situational awareness is key as well as proper flight procedures during manual and automated flying.

Tal and Altschuld explore basic drone photography, which many drone operators will use in the beginning of their flying career since it is relatively straightforward. Plus, the photographic results can be easily adjusted in commonly available Adobe Acrobat or Bluebeam software. Photo match overlays of the proposed project can easily be inserted into the existing site using Photoshop. 3D model photo overlays can also include integrating 3D modeling software models of the proposed design into the existing drone photography. This is a great tool for project visualization and client presentation meetings in which drone visualization images help communicate complex ideas easily and efficiently.

Bird’s Eye drone image of Hudson Gardens in Littleton, Colorado. The base image is used for 3D visualization. / DHM Design
The resulting image, post processed with Photoshop, integrating a Sketchup and Lumion Render creates an expressive, context-rich image. / DHM Design

Chapters on photogrammetry and 3D modeling are the most crucial, because these tasks will ultimately provide the most comprehensive data needed for advancing complex design projects. The catch is that photogrammetry, although simple in concept, is a relatively complex process that requires time and patience. The first-time drone user needs to make sure that the data acquired is consistent and free of bugs; otherwise, the end result – the 3D mesh point cloud — will be rife with topographical errors, and the resulting model will be inaccurate and not suitable for using as a 3D Mesh in Sketchup, Autodesk Revit, or ReCap.

Precision and patience are necessary to produce a highly refined and detailed 3D point cloud. The author explain the steps required for an accurate on-site scan, such as establishing ground control points, proper flight, image collection, and weather planning. These methods require further study and a trial period of trouble shooting. The drone user will most likely produce several versions of a photogrammetric model before arriving at a finished product.

Drone photogrammetry data along I-70 in Colorado. Left to right: initial point cloud, final point cloud, and 3D mesh. / Chinook Landscape Architecture and HDR. Inc.

Drone Technology in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction is well-written and concise enough that the reader will not get bogged down with the details but still be engaged throughout the process. It is perfect for landscape architecture firms seeking to purchase a drone but are unsure of next steps.

Chris S. Sherwin, ASLA, RLA, is managing director and drone mapping expert at CSS D/S LLP in Oakland, California and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Commission of Fine Arts Approves Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Design

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

After a free-wheeling three-hour review, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in Washington, D.C. approved the latest design of the Hirshhorn sculpture garden from a team led by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese artist, architect, and landscape designer. The contentious revamp of the garden, which has gone through two years of review and refinement, features reconfigured outdoor sculpture galleries, a diverse and rich tree and planting design, a new central pool — and the most controversial element, stacked stone walls. The landscape design brings a contemporary Japanese sense of space and materials to the National Mall and will be only the second Asian-inspired design after the Moongate Garden found next to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The new design further diversifies the multicultural experience of the National Mall, which now includes the National Museum of African American History and Culture that incorporates African design motifs.

As ASLA and the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) have recently highlighted, the CFA is currently without a landscape architect for only the second time in its 112-year history. Just a few years ago, three landscape architects, academics, and designers — Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, and Liza Gilbert, ASLA — were among the commissioners. But with the new set of four commissioners appointed by the Biden-Harris administration, the CFA is also one of the most diverse in its history, with three commissioners of color, including the first woman and Asian American chair, architect Billie Tsien. The lack of representation of landscape architects on the CFA is a source of concern as the CFA frequently reviews proposals that impact historic landscapes.

Melissa Chiu, the Chinese Australian executive director of the Hirshhorn, introduced the presentation by the design team, which is led by Sugimoto and includes Felix Ade, an architect from YUN Architecture; Faye Harwell, FASLA, a landscape architect and founder of the D.C.-based firm Rhodeside & Harwell; and Alyson Steele, an architect with the D.C.-based architecture firm Quinn Evans.

Chiu argued that the design by Sugimoto and team is a “natural evolution” of the current garden, because Gordon Bunshaft, the original Hirshhorn museum and garden architect, was deeply influenced by Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi and traveled to Japan, where he appreciated stacked stone walls.

Bunshaft’s Brutalist design for the sculpture garden, which opened in 1974, was without trees so became a “hot micro-climate” in the punishing Washington, D.C. summer. In 1981, landscape architect Lester Collins, also a “student of Asian design,” completed a redesign of the garden, creating smaller rooms; adding ample maples, pines, and plants; and a wheelchair-accessible ramp at the National Mall entrance to the park, an advance in accessibility years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. Prior to Collins’ redesign, the central underground pathway leading from the sunken sculpture garden to the museum was closed. The passageway was viewed as dark and perhaps unsafe and was reconfigured as an educational center.

Lester Collins’ 1981 redesign of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden / Hirshhorn Museum

The new design includes three outdoor gallery experiences that will provide greater curatorial flexibility for the Hirshhorn, Chiu argued.

A new central gallery is a flexible garden space designed for performance art. Responding to feedback from consulting parties as part of seven Section 106 reviews, the Hirshhorn has kept the form of Bunschaft’s original rectangular pool, which mirrors a window above in the Hirshhorn facade. An additional pool has gone through many revisions.

Central Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

The design team ultimately landed on a U-shaped pool immediately to the south of the original rectangular pool, separated by a new five-foot-wide central walkway and stage. The pool can drain for events, providing tiers of seating. Harwell argued that it will be a much-needed respite in D.C.’ s brutal summers, helping to cool the space.

Central Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

A west gallery will provide space for newly commissioned, large-scale sculpture, with a lawn. The area can be used for “site-specific works, film festivals, and school groups,” Chiu said.

West Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

A new east gallery will create smaller rooms filled with trees that offer more intimate spaces for the Rodin and Henry Moore sculptures now found in the garden.

East Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

Responding to feedback from the CFA’s first review in 2019 that approved the general concepts, there is now a more fleshed-out landscape design. Harwell explained that the new design preserves much of Collins’ work by protecting the large elms that ring the garden and continuing to feature the pines and maples he planted. But to combat the “sameness” of the current landscape, Harwell is adding nine tree and 40 ground cover species, 70 percent of which will be native. Plants were selected for texture, and colors include whites and cremes, with hints of red. The landscape is designed for seasonal change and to create a sense of “stylized naturalism.”

New broad stone pavers, which are being evaluated in a test area of the garden, will replace the current brown squares. New handrails will be bronze, as they are now. Throughout the landscape, stormwater will be managed on-site, with the help of two underground cisterns that will capture water for irrigation.

New paver design at right, with existing brown square pavers at bottom left / Jared Green

At the south end of the garden, the passageway linking the museum with the garden will be re-opened and sheathed in mirror-like panels that bring light to the tunnel. Commissioners were universally positive about the feature, with Commissioner James McCrery calling it “brilliant.”

View of the new staircase leading to the Museum at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

At the north end, where the garden meets the National Mall, the width of Bunshaft’s original entrance — 60-feet — is restored in the new design. The concrete wall that visitors now see when they enter will also be replaced by a much shorter 42-inch-high stacked stone wall. The accessible ramps at the north entrance will be moved to the west side of the garden, and a new entrance will be created on the east side.

North entrance at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum
View from north entrance at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

Commissioner Justin Garrett Moore argued that ramps on just the west side of the garden don’t go far enough to create a universally accessible experience for all wheelchair users at various access points. All commissioners agreed that an additional custom-designed elevator was required and needed further study.

New access points, with accessible ramp at left, at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

The perimeter concrete walls, which are now “inherently unstable,” will be rebuilt, but within the space, new stone stacked inner partition walls will change the character of the space, softening its Brutalism with a more naturalistic feel. The design team has been testing prototypes of the wall within the garden.

Prototype stacked stone wall at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden / Jared Green

According to Ade and Steele, the new stacked stone walls, which will be comprised of stones sourced from a quarry in Pennsylvania, will offer better acoustics, as the walls will be rough, have open joints, and be subtly angled towards the sky, bouncing sound upwards. Chiu said the walls will be critical to supporting performance artists’ work. Ade and Steele confirmed that extensive acoustic studies were conducted to confirm they create a better sound environment than the current concrete walls, which apparently reflect sound directly back to its source.

In a video, Sugimoto said Bunshaft was inspired by Japanese Zen gardens and his goal is to simply “restructure Bunshaft’s design in spirit.” Throughout the review process, Sugimoto has vehemently defended the stacked stone walls as central to his overall design, arguing that they bring an “ancient spirit to a modern garden.” He said “the pre-modern stone stacked walls will make the modern sculpture stand out,” and through contrast will highlight their modernity.

In a break from tradition during the pandemic, organizations submitting comments on the proposals weren’t allowed to speak directly to commissioners; instead Thomas Luebke, secretary of the CFA, read summaries of feedback.

Since the sculpture garden concept design was reviewed two years ago, there have been vocal opposition to many design elements, including the walls and pool and the general shift in the character of the design away from the Brutalist landscape that is in unison with the building. One over-arching concern is the lack of consideration of Lester Collins’ 1981 redesign of the garden, which has recently been deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places; two years ago, when the CFA first reviewed the proposed re-design, it hadn’t been.

TCLF, Committee of 100, and Docomomo have all raised concerns throughout the Section 106 review process. In a comprehensive set of comments and questions sent to the Commission, TCLF stated: “We are supportive of the revitalization efforts but have serious concerns about two design interventions that would fundamentally alter Gordon Bunshaft’s artistic vision, which was respected by landscape architect Lester Collins.” Those interventions are the new pool and stacked stone walls.

They also raised concerns about how the Smithsonian will maintain the new, more complex pool; whether enough research has been done on the acoustic benefits of the proposed walls; and why a reconfigured central galley is even needed, given the expanded western gallery.

Furthermore, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and former vice chairwoman of the CFA, sent a clarification regarding her past statements, arguing that they have been used by the Hirshhorn “without context, leading to the impression that I endorse the current designs. I do not.” She outlined that the “period of significance” in the National Register of Historic Places nomination shifted to 1981 in February 2020, after the CFA last reviewed the conceptual designs, and this should trigger an important reconsideration of the changes to Collins’ designs.

But there are also supporters. Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of the landscape architecture OLIN, offered his opinions in an extensive memo that concludes “the project as currently proposed by Sugimoto, Harwell, et al, is far superior to what has existed adjacent to the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Mall until now, and if implemented will add a worthy layer to those that will inevitably remain embedded in the situation. The sculpture garden will become a sequential and combined work of Bunshaft, Collins, and Sugimoto, created through time, one far more interesting than any of them could have done alone.”

Perhaps only Olin’s comments were decisive in influencing the Commission, as the commissioners expressed an openness to what Sugimoto’s team proposed and didn’t call for sending the design back to the drawing board to reconsider Collins’ contributions to improving the original landscape.

Instead, the focus of the Commission was on how to rethink the accessibility, safety, and security of the sculpture garden and National Mall buildings and landscapes for the 21st century. And it seemed more than an hour of the conversation returned to these topics, as the commissioners repeatedly questioned what the experience would be like for a wheelchair user.

New Biden-appointed Commissioner Justin Garrett Moore, a transdisciplinary designer, urbanist, and program officer for the Humanities for Places program at the Andrew Mellon W. Foundation, who initiated the focus on accessibility, said the project was an “opportunity to explore what public landscapes should be and mean” for a contemporary Washington, D.C. We can expect to see a greater focus on moving universal design forward with this Commission.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 1-15)

Los Angeles River project design / MLA-Studio

Studio-MLA Will Lead a Major Riverfront Development in Riverside, California — 07/14/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“‘To maximize the benefits, we’re thinking holistically across disciplines, working in concert with the community and with the river’s ecology, and planning for real equity with a very long-term view,’ says Mia Lehrer, the president of the studio.”

Arboretum Showcasing Educational Games Designed by Grad Students — 07/14/21, The Auburn Villager
“Designed by landscape architecture graduate students, the games allow visitors to interact with the arboretum in new and innovative ways while also teaching them things about nature they might not have known.”

The Power of Getting Paid Not to Park at Work — 07/14/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Subsidizing employer-paid parking clogs streets boosts emissions and isn’t fair to commuters who can’t use this perk. But there’s an easy way to fix it.”

Covid Didn’t Kill Cities. Why Was That Prophecy So Alluring? — 07/12/21, The New York Times
“Inevitably, the city survives. And yet so does the belief it will fall next time. The Upshot asked more than a dozen people who think a lot about cities — historians, economists, sociologists and urban policy experts — about the strange staying power of this narrative.”

Who’s the Green City for, Really? — 07/12/21, Sierra Club Magazine
“This idea that all green spaces are an unmitigated social good is nothing new…It’s a concept that’s existed since the late 19th century. What is unique now, though, is public awareness of ecological concerns like climate change. Green cities are now the epitome of an ideal, modern urban life, and urban planners seek to integrate highly visible, nature-based projects into cities.”

While We’re Considering Removing Highways, Let’s Not Overlook Pavement — 07/07/21, Next City
“Removing urban pavement would reduce stormwater run-off and treatment, rebuild natural climate buffers in cities, release soil from confinement, make space to plant trees, sequester carbon, and allow people to breathe fresh air, not asphalt.”

OJB Landscape Architecture’s Downtown Cary Park in North Carolina Will Be the First of Its Kind in the Region — 07/02/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The promise of catalytic change is very much present in the design of the ambitious Downtown Cary Park, which is being positioned as a central element in the larger revitalization of the town’s downtown core.”

Mirei Shigemori: Abstraction, Not Elimination

Mirei Shigemori — Rebel in the Garden by Christian Tschumi / Birkhauser, cover image: Christian Lichtenberg

By Masako Ikegami, ASLA

Few landscape architects embody an aesthetic style as striking and intertwined with a country’s identity as Mirei Shigemori. His landscapes in Japan are one of the greatest representations of the karesansui style, a dry garden that uses neither ponds nor streams but is latent with references to nature. This master designer’s palette includes ripples of stone, deliberately-placed boulders, and highly-sculpted plantings. Each element represents the natural world, not a deletion of it. Indeed, the beauty of Shigemori’s garden is in its exercise of abstraction, not elimination.

In a new book, Mirei Shigemori — Rebel in the Garden, landscape architect Christian Tschumi deconstructs the multiple influences represented in the outward simplicity of Shigemori’s iconic gardens.

Shigemori is presented as an omnivorous seeker of knowledge. By focusing on the complex passions of this landscape master — his upbringing, lifelong pursuits, scholarship and publications, family, and spirituality — the book succeeds in creating a nuanced perspective.

In the first part, Tschumi explains that Shigemori was a practitioner of chado – the art of tea; ardent student of ikebana, the art of flower arranging; one of the first designers to survey all of the gardens in Japan; author of 81 published books; and a designer of 239 gardens. Given the breadth of his interests, it is reasonable to wonder if Shigemori would have called himself a landscape architect. He was a true polymath.

Born in 1896 in Okayama prefecture, Shigemori is enterprising and artistic from his youth; building himself his own chashitsu Tea Room in his teen years and embarking on an education in nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) at the Tokyo Fine Arts School.

Imagine a time in Japan before the Shinkansen bullet trains between Tokyo and Kyoto were first made available in 1964, years before Narita International Airport opened to serve as a gateway for global travel. In the few photos of the man himself, Shigemori is highly engaged, wearing a hakama (traditional Japanese men’s attire) and serving tea, or a three piece suit while accompanying Isamu Noguchi at a stone quarry in mid 1950’s.

Shigemori, at left, is conducting a tour of landscapes around Kyoto for Isamu Noguchi, who was visiting at the time. / Mr Suzue

The author mentions in a rather factual manner that western influences shaped Mirei Shigemori’s life. For example, the name Mirei is not his birth name but one that he adopted in 1925 at age 29. The name refers to Jean-Francois Millet, a 19th Century French artist of pastoral landscapes and daily life. What is implied in this observation of Shigemori’s nom de guerre?

The book then explores a number of Shigemori’s landscapes in detail, including the Maegaki Residence. Built in 1955, this residential garden demonstrates the emergence of Shigemori’s signature style of the undulating line, cut out of stone as if to frame the rectilinear nature of property lines and the engawa veranda typical of traditional homes. Tschumi states this garden was designed early in his career, but at this point Shigemori is just shy of sixty years old. Shown below is the generous residence of a sake brewer, with three distinct garden areas in the front and back of the house.

The wave motif is shown in the South Garden in plan. The sinuous line becomes a recurring theme in Shigemori’s later works. / Shigemori family

The South Garden located in the back of the house is entirely visible and unified with the interior space. The placement of risseki (standing stones) is intended for the viewer imagine boats out in the sea, a mythical journey to the islands of the immortals.

The wave motif is shown in the foreground, with the iconic rock sculptures – risseki, in the middle ground. / Christian Lichtenberg

Tschumi offers a thorough analysis of the garden with Shigemori’s own words, which were a rebuke of what he deemed the amateur nature of gardens in Japan at the time. “People tend to think that anybody can make a garden, without any education or original ideas. A lack of insight on the part of the owner, and knowledge on behalf of the garden maker, provides for many tasteless gardens.” Shigemori is seeking a way to connect to timeless, essential beauty through his artistic endeavors. Lucky is the artist who himself is immortalized in the many gardens still in the care of clients who relish his work.

Perhaps the Japanese term haikara, though colloquial, is an apt description of Shigemori’s personality. Haikara describes a certain type of Japanese gentleman with a Western flair, derived from the English “high collar” fashion popular during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). To use a personal example: my grandfather would have shokupan (sliced milk bread) for breakfast and was considered haikara because he didn’t have the traditional choice of asagohan (rice for breakfast).

Much has been written about how Japanese culture at all levels demonstrates a competition between two opposing forces: modernity and tradition. In simple terms, modernity is often seen as rooted in westernization, and at times an incursion into or dilution of Japanese tradition. But the limitations of such discussions are obvious, and Tschumi is careful not to steep in this theme, allowing the reader to imagine a more complex man in Shigemori.

The majority of the publication focuses on present-day photographs of Shigemori’s landscapes and detailed plans collected by the author with the cooperation with Shigemori’s estate. The projects are astonishingly simple yet staggeringly beautiful. And the reader is again left to question how Shigemori could embark on so many creative endeavors in one lifetime. One quibble: the photography does not depict people and is deliberately devoid of any visitors or caretakers. In reality, droves of visitors admire Shigemori’s landscapes, so they require rigorous maintenance.

In my experience, visiting Tofuku-ji Hojo in Kyoto is like the moment you finally arrive at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Tofuku-ji Hojo in Kyoto is one of the most popular gardens in Japan. / Shigemori family

As visitors to Japan seek out Shigemori’s landscapes, which they may view as aesthetic experiences quintessential to Japanese culture, one actually finds the world at his landscapes. It is a safe bet that a log of visitors to Shigemori’s public gardens would demonstrate more international traffic than any regional airport. This reverse haikara — foreigners flocking to Kyoto to take in Japanese culture and aesthetics — is perhaps driven by the same impulse of the Japanese dandies: in studying the other, they find more of themselves.

Masako Ikegami, ASLA, is a marketing associate with SWA Group in Los Angeles.

The History of the Rails-to-Trails Movement

From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network / University of Nebraska Press

By Charles A. Flink

Peter Harnik’s From Rails-to-Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network explores the interwoven history of American railways and the rails-to-trails movement. As Harnik declares at the outset, “you can’t have a rail-trail if you don’t have an old railroad line.” An oversimplification? Yes. But as Harnik further outlines, rails-to-trail projects are far more complex than pulling up abandoned railroad tracks and converting the rail bed into a walking and bicycling corridor.

Why and how Americans decided to convert abandoned rails to active transportation trail corridors cannot be easily explained. Nearly half of From Rails-to-Trails is devoted to the fascinating history of America’s railroads — why and how they were established; why there were so many different rail corridors; and why thousands of miles of track were later abandoned. The gold rush nature of railroad development generated a glut of duplicative rail lines and associated train service, which after World War II was pared back to match changing needs, culture, and transportation preferences.

Harnik offers the backstory of why Americans demanded outdoor linear-oriented recreation and alternative transportation and then transformed seemingly worthless strips of land into a network of local, regional, and national hiking and biking corridors. He describes the politics behind the rails-to-trail movement, specifically the contributions of public servants, unsung heroes, and forgotten contributors who enabled the movement to succeed. According to Harnik, “the conversion of abandoned rail lines to trails wasn’t a Great Society–type program that came out of a mandate from Washington, D.C. It was an up-from-the-grassroots movement that bubbled out of modest places like Sparta, Wisconsin; Maywood, Illinois; and Rochester, Minnesota.”

From Rails-to-Trails is packed with an incredible array of charts and supporting data that explain all the twists and turns that led Americans to transform 18,000 miles of abandoned railroad into trails. His book is well researched and documented, and the writing style is clean and crisp, and appropriately punctuated with wit and humor.

Harnik, along with David Burwell co-founded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization that was born out of necessity and came of age during increased railroad abandonment and renewed national interest in non-motorized transportation.

Peter Harnik (left) and David Burwell (right) / Robert Trippett

Harnik shares a personal story of bicycling in Manhattan in the 1960’s and longing for landscapes that would be car free and dedicated to non-motorized travel. He describes his early fascination with trains and admits that it took him fifty years to connect the dots and fully appreciate how much he loved both modes of transportation. Harnik’s passion for trains and bicycling is evident as one winds through his marvelous account of how railroads were transformed into trails.

From Rails-to-Trails then answers some of the most important questions about the conversion of abandoned railroad corridors:

Why were there so many railroad corridors in the first place? Harnik recounts that “an extended railroad fever took hold from 1830 to 1890 (nearly 60 years of railroad construction), interrupted only by periodic panics and depressions. And in this environment, companies with the best endpoints, the loudest promoters, and the best connected political lobbyists (and bribe distributors) fared best.” He states that a railroad corridor, unlike a highway corridor, is difficult to share and therefore each track represented a unique economic opportunity. Some popular markets, such as St. Louis and Chicago, were served by numerous independent operators, all of which laid their own railroad.

Pennsylvania Railroad Meyersdale train / courtesy of Bill Metzger collection

What caused Americans to abandon rails? Simply put, America’s romance and love of train travel changed dramatically after World War II. Formerly frequent users of rail service were “waylaid by shiny new government funded highways and airports. Shippers were increasingly choosing trucks, short distance passengers were using cars, and long-distance travelers were rapidly shifting to airplanes.” Railroads began failing at an alarming rate; an economic reckoning was at hand.

How did rail-banking come about and why has it been such an effective strategy for conserving abandoned rail corridors? Harnik profiles a group of young lawyers, lobbyists, and real estate specialists whose combined talents resulted in the creation of a special “bank” designed to receive unique “deposits” of abandoned railroads. “If they were in a bank, they wouldn’t be officially abandoned but could be saved for the future.”

How did the rails-to-trails movement get started and why was the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy a key leader in this movement? Converting rails-to-trails began slowly with a few signature projects developed in random locations across the nation, such as the Elroy-Sparta Trail in Wisconsin, the Burke-Gillman Trail in Seattle, and the Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Iowa.

The movement was born through the dogged determination of a few brave souls who used ingenuity, grit, and determination to rescue abandoned railroads before they were lost forever. The perfect storm of abandoned railroads occurred on November 30, 1981, creating the need for a national non-profit organization to emerge and begin to address the catastrophic collapse of the railroad industry.

Burwell and Harnik were in the right place at the right time, with aligned interests and a passion to challenge the status quo. Harnik reflects “when I first heard about rails-to-trails, I was electrified to discover a type of corridor that had never been sullied by the tread of a tire. Giving no thought to any legal niceties or pitfalls, I immediately set out to publicize that, yes, there was something new under the sun.”

Georgetown Branch B&O railroad track (overhead) became the Capital Crescent Trail / Peter Harnik

The final chapters of the book offer a glimpse into the long-term value of rails-to-trails as the framework for an interconnected, coast-to-coast, non-motorized transportation network capable of satisfying America’s insatiable desire for travel and recreation. Harnik describes how the rails-to-trails movement has matured and evolved to become one of the most important land conservation and real estate enterprises in American history.

With more than 18,000 miles of rail-trails in existence, rails-to-trails surpasses the combined mileage of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and all other national scenic trails. The rails-to-trails movement has forever changed the way in which Americans use trails. Many of the nation’s most popular and heavily used trails are rail-to-trail conversions.

Harnik doesn’t highlight the contributions of any one profession in From Rails-to-Trails. But it is worth noting the contributions landscape architects have made in furthering the movement. Landscape architects led efforts to formulate design guidelines and construction standards for converted rail-to-trails and have consistently led multi-disciplinary teams in the design and development of the most notable rail-to-trail projects in the nation.

Great American Rail Trail / courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Harnik rightfully deserves credit for being one of the pioneers who led a movement that positively affected the lives of millions of Americans. His book will be a reference for trail designers and builders for generations to come.

Chuck A. Flink, FASLA, is an award-winning author and landscape architect. He is the author of The Greenway Imperative: Connecting Communities and Landscapes for a Sustainable Future, University Press of Florida, 2020.

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Tackle “Disorienting Dilemmas” (Part 1)

Rio Piedras watershed / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.

Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo: Taking on the Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an island of 3.2 million Americans. An unincorporated U.S. territory, it has a population larger than 20 U.S. states. The San Juan Estuary faces many challenges, including flooding, explained Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo, Principal, ECo. Efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the Rio Piedras, which spreads south from San Juan into the heart of the island, have brought up a complex set of issues related to “politics, economics, and flood conveyance.” Along its course, the river is both “polluted and biodiverse, near and inaccessible, beautiful and dangerous.” As a response to extreme flooding from Hurricane Maria, the Army Corps has allocated $1.5 billion to transform 9.5 miles of a “soft, natural river into a concrete, high-velocity channel” and insert five new bridges into the river landscape. “This shows a total disregard for climate change and environmental science” and also for the Army Corps own new nature-based engineering approach, Colón Izquierdo argued.

Rio Piedras / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

To better advocate for a nature-based approach that can make Puerto Rico more resilient to flooding, Colón Izquierdo has joined with scientists, advocates, and scholars who created Alianza Por La Cuenca del Rio Piedras, guided by the message “el rio esta vivo,” or “the river is alive.” While taking on the Army Corps, a complex bureaucracy, is analogous to “David attempting to defeat Goliath,” Colón Izquierdo believes the effort is critical because the design is “many decades behind in its conception.” In fact, the design is from 1992 and environmental impact statement from 1993; the project was resuscitated after Hurricane Maria decimated the island and exposed the vulnerability of so many living in Puerto Rico’s floodplains. By organizing design charettes and educating the public about nature-based options to improving the safety and health of the river, Colón Izquierdo seeks to build capacity, find leverage, and “get a seat at the table” — and perhaps save other rivers in Puerto Rico from the same fate.

Rio Piedras design charrette / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

Andrea Johnson: Imagining New Forms of Community-owned Renewable Energy

Sunset Park, Brooklyn / Andrea Johnson

Bounded at one side by the Bronx-Queens Expressway, the neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn includes a jail, mechanic shops, warehouses, and vacant land, explained Andrea Johnson, a visiting assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. A maritime hub, the community is home to the Brooklyn Terminal, a massive industrial and commercial building that is now covered in a solar array cooperatively managed. This array got Johnson thinking about the hidden energy systems that comprise the community that can be re-imagined to provide “collective social value.”

When electricity demand in NYC increases, gas-driven peakers in Sunset Park start up, which contributes to the noxious air quality in the neighborhood, which includes mostly people of color. UPROSE, a community group, and other local organizations, have been trying to get the New York Power Authority to permanently close the peakers in favor of renewable energy, but the authority has only put them on stand by. Johnson said “decommissioning the peakers and replacing with publicly-owned renewable energy would lead to a more just and equitable energy system.” If decarbonization occurs through community-run renewable energy, then people in Sunset Park could benefit from electricity surges.

“There is a role for landscape architects here that needs to be seized. We can get ahead of the policy and innovate from how energy is perceived, stored, and used.” She analyzed and discovered 75 megawatts of energy could be generated on public rooftops in the community. “Back-up storage sources could then be spread across the public sphere.” Johnson and her students at CUNY have been imagining other new solutions that involve wind turbines, micro-grids, utility-scale batteries, a “gravity park” in which heavy blocks are raised to create kinetic energy that can be stored, and other systems that can both generate and store energy and serve as cleaner, more just forms of peakers.

Sunset Park renewable energy and storage concept / Andrea Johnson
Gravity Park concept / Andrea Johnson

Diego Bermúdez: A Comprehensive Plan for Protecting Bogotá’s Cultural Landscapes

The savanna of Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

Bogotá, Colombia, is a city of 9 million people and continues to expand rapidly at its periphery. This sprawl threatens the historic Bogotá savanna, an important high-altitude wetland landscape. Diego Bermúdez, principal and partner, Bermúdez Arquitectos, in Bogotá, explained that 2,500 years ago, the area formed the vast floodplains of the Bogotá River and its many tributaries. Pre-Hispanic settlers, the indigenous Muisca people, who lived in small villages, built canals and berms to create flood-proof zones for growing food. “They lived amid 100,000 acres of wetlands and were amphibious people.”

When the Spanish arrived in the 17th century, they removed the Muisca and subdivided the land to scale up industrial food production. Farms were organized into grids, with protective canals, to increase yields. By the 1920s, the government created a water management district that was meant to preserve the irrigation systems. Those layers of water management history are now threatened by rampant sprawl and development into the savanna region. Bermúdez said the city’s population is expected to increase to 10.5 million in 2035 and reach upwards of 14 million by 2050.

Expected urban expansion into agricultural areas of Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

To protect the savanna landscape, which grows 40 percent of the city’s food, Bermúdez proposes a strategy that first protects the historic canals, which are also hubs for biodiversity, including 200 species of birds. “Water management can be a tool for reimagining the future.” As he spent a year traveling to these agricultural communities and also meeting the developers who are urbanizing the area, he found “new hope,” because “people want to protect the water management system for flooding, biodiversity, and recreation.” Bermúdez has been working to connect the disparate players and layers of plans into a regional plan that can guide development away from the savanna, create protective zones for the historic agricultural landscapes, and further densify the core of Bogotá.

A new layered regional plan for Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

Read part two on this year’s LAF fellows.

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Tackle “Disorienting Dilemmas” (Part 2)

San Joaquin Valley farmer profiles / Community Alliance for Agroecology

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.

Alison Hirsch: Equitable and Sustainable Water Management for California’s Central Valley

California’s Central Valley accounts for one-fourth of the country’s food supply, but it’s a deeply troubled agricultural landscape. Alison Hirsch, associate professor of landscape architecture and urbanism and program director, University of Southern California in Los Angeles, characterized the landscape as challenged by climate change, poverty, animal waste, pollution, collapsing aquifers, and racist labor and immigration practices that are the result of the “violence of an extractive system.” But it’s also a “landscape of extreme resilience and that provide optimism.”

Hirsh brought a “longitudinal action research” framework, which was conceived by Ann Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at MIT, in order to conduct “investigative mapping” and find opportunities for structural policy changes.

San Joaquin Valley mapping / Alison Hirsch with Lauren Cubacub, MLA, USC

For example, Hirsch and her team of USC landscape architecture students found that “big farms get the best and most groundwater.” These industrial farms can dig up to 250 feet deep to get at remnant pockets of groundwater. This process is increasingly leaving black and brown communities, many of which are immigrants, without access to water. Furthermore, old dry wells are contaminated with animal waste and arsenic, which then poisons other water sources used by immigrant workers. Hirsch studied local organizations and interviewed farmers advocating for more equitable and sustainable water management as part of eco-agricultural cooperatives.

Key informants of research / Alison Hirsch

Alexa Vaughn-Brainard: Going Beyond ADA to Achieve Universal Design

Medical model vs. social model / Alexa Vaughn-Brainard

“I am a deaf woman, a disabled person, and a landscape designer,” explained Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA, with MIG. “I am constantly adapting myself to the built environment but it’s not adapting to me. Enough is enough: We have been fighting the same battles since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed thirty years ago.” Vaughn-Brainard said communities need to move away from “the medical model in which the person is the problem,” to a “social model in which the built environment is the problem.” According to the World Health Organization, 1 billion people around the world are disabled, which is one-seventh the global population. In the U.S., 20-25 percent have a disability. “Disability is a spectrum; and some disabilities are invisible.” Furthermore, disabled people are a group “anyone can join at any time.”

Spectrum of disabilities / Alexa Vaughn-Brainard

Recounting the long fight to achieve ADA requirements for buildings and landscapes, Vaughn-Brainard argued that they are really the bare minimum. Explaining her Deafscape design guidelines, she outlined how deaf people need 10-to-12-foot-wide sidewalks so they can walk and sign; a “degree of enclosure” to feel safe so recommended tall-back seating; and broader lines of sight. She called for the use of universal design principles as a “creative tool,” because there are no “one size fits all” solutions. Vaughn-Brainard outlined approaches for designing with disabled communities and especially disabled designers — from accessible meetings and focus groups, to accessible plans and models for teams of abled and disabled to review together, to accessibility audits landscape architects can undertake with communities.

Disabled stakeholder meeting in Eugene, Oregon / OLIN, Cameron McCarthy

Roxi Thoren: An Introspective Journey into a World Shaped by Multiple Species

Before the pandemic struck, Roxi Thoren, ASLA, head of the department of landscape architecture at Penn State University, had planned a series of programs and a book to explore how climate change posed a threat to complex ecological relationships among species. Thoren argues that the world is full of species, and that designers must increasingly approach animals with respect and co-design with them. “How can we include animals? How can we with collaborate with them?,” she urged us to consider.

Turning towards her residential landscape and neighborhood in Oregon, and the plants and animals that call it home, Thoren instead found inspiration in nature, offering a poem accompanied by a slideshow of images.

Read part one on this year’s LAF fellows.

Barbara Wilks’ Dynamic Geographies

Dynamic Geographies / Barbara Wilks, ORO Editions

By Grace Mitchell Tada

Static. According to Barbara Wilks, FASLA, landscapes are too often designed with that operating assumption.

Even though humans have been around for the past 200,000 years, we still have a proclivity to design landscapes to remain the same for 20 to 50 years.

Wilks argues this is a problem that needs to change. Given the projected growth of cities and the challenges of a rapidly shifting climate, she asserts that dynamic landscapes are required for resilient, healthy urban communities.

She strives to create these landscapes at her firm, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture. Her ideas about landscapes emerge from decades of professional experience. In a new book, Dynamic Geographies, Wilks demonstrates how she centers natural processes through her designs. As most of her projects unfold in cities, this necessarily includes altering how humans perceive the landscapes around them.

Wilks defines dynamic geographies as complex systems that use non-anthropogenic forces for adaptation. For landscape architects to integrate these systems into projects, they must consider other species, the interconnectivity of various forms of life, and time as a landscape element. Landscape architects must design to larger and multiple time scales. They must gauge “what could be as opposed to what we want changed now.”

A key aspect to designing at various time scales involves transforming how we manage landscapes—and that includes the management of W’s projects. At present, they require humans to maintain. A truly sustainable landscape, Wilks asserts, can exist without humans, allowing “different flows and rates of change for different species.” As a result, W designs landscapes that welcome these processes: it’s these forms of maintenance that in the long run can yield diverse and sustaining landscapes.

The book divides W’s projects into three categories: “(In)visible Geographies,” “Layered Geographies,” and “Unleashing Geographies.” Each section builds on the other, and projects across these sections seek to illuminate landscapes’ dynamism and situate geographies within extended time scales. While Wilks doesn’t claim success in all her projects—“this book is a critical look back at our success and failures at W”—one can glean effective strategies to instill dynamism throughout projects.

In the first section, projects attempt to reveal aspects of sites often hidden, “making them manifest, so that urban dwellers have the opportunity to situate themselves in larger systems that transcend their immediate realities,” writes Alison Hirsch in the book’s introduction. Wilks is not nostalgic for us to return to previous time or to lost landscapes. “We can’t return to the past,” she writes, but “we can construct new relationships that bind us into the fabric of a place’s ongoing evolution.”

Through these new relationships, Wilks hopes communities can understand they are embedded in and not separate from nature. W’s projects facilitate this understanding in various ways. In Baltimore, a waterfront soap factory simultaneously reflects its location in the greater Chesapeake Bay region and in an industrial harbor. In Brooklyn, the off-kilter angles of the piers at the Edge project echo the turbulence of the East River into which they extend.

At West Harlem Piers Park in Manhattan, newly designed piers adopt the patterns of the Hudson River instead of the city grid. The site’s forms resemble sand dunes and the benches recall driftwood. The project, though, didn’t emerge solely of the designer’s ideas. In fact, the community spurned W’s initial conception of the project involving a “missing pier”—a field of piles in the Hudson—as too evocative of a ruin. In its place, New York City’s first reef ball structure was developed, which today serves as habitat to a diversity of aquatic life.

West Harlem Piers, New York, NY / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The book’s second section, “Layered Geographies,” doubles down on integrating the social and ecological systems comprising urban spaces. The projects here demonstrate the relationships between communities and the place in which they’re embedded. Several projects were designed for communities in places destroyed by urban renewal or disregarded by infrastructure projects, including in St. Louis and Detroit.

Chouteau Greenway, St. Louis, MO / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

One such project is Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter in Tampa, Florida. The park was previously an African American neighborhood, which was demolished with the construction of a highway. A park was established in its place, from which the displaced community understandably felt estranged. W was brought in to work with them to develop a park that reflected what they wanted. Not only does the new park embody the community’s desires, but it weaves into the surrounding urban social fabric and allows the river ecology to flourish. Like many of W’s projects, this landscape necessitated considerations of many time scales — from the daily to the generational to the geological.

Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The final section, “Unleashing Geographies,” further elevates nonhuman systems and their agency in shaping landscapes, especially over extended time scales. Wilks is interested in how their landscapes will evolve and how they can support all varieties of biophysical systems through this evolution. They are about humans letting go.

This objective is exemplified by W’s design at St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Alberta. W accentuated the shifting nature of the island, removing static water-protective barriers around the edge and welcoming water flows through the island. The design fosters the emergence of streams and wetlands, which will move over time while designating certain “fixed” areas for human activity. According to Wilks, perhaps expressing her ideal of a designed landscape, “it is a living landscape with smaller human-managed areas set within it.”

St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

Through their deference to natural systems, projects like St. Patrick’s Island achieve lasting change. These projects, Wilks insists, must enable new growth and development of adaptable systems—not just preservation of existing ones. As she points out, even small projects in this vein show how they can succeed on other sites, encouraging more such efforts to proliferate. Here, especially, the book may prove useful to other landscape architects and designers, who can glean inspiration from W’s projects.

As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16-30)

Taipingqiao Park in Shanghai / Design Land Collective, via Forbes

High-Profile China Communist Memorial Gets a Boost from American Landscape Architect — 06/30/21, Forbes
“Finished in 2001, a park across from the party congress site known as Taipingqiao Park has taken on new importance as home to the new memorial. Taipingqiao Park and the accompanying Taipingqiao Lake with have received a big facelift in the past year led by Dwight Law, an American landscape architect and principal of Design Land Collaborative in Shanghai.”

Step Inside a Los Angeles Home That’s All About Natural Tones and Clean Lines — 06/29/21, Architectural Digest
“Working with landscape architect Chris Sosa, Woods and Dangaran plotted the house in relation to trees and plantings that soften the emphatically rectilinear lines of the structure. Outside the plaster privacy wall, the front yard is lined with a swath of oak trees and boulders.”

Into the Archives: the Design of Central Park, a Masterpiece of Landscape Architecture — 06/27/21, Designboom
“In the 1850s, a competition was launched for the design of a large new park in manhattan. the project sought to address the recreational needs of the rapidly growing city by offering new yorkers an experience of the countryside where they could escape from the stresses of urban life.”

The U.S. Neighborhoods with the Greatest Tree Inequity, Mapped — 06/25/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Neighborhoods with a majority of people of color have, on average, 33% less tree canopy than majority-white communities, according to data from the Tree Equity Score map, a project of the conservation nonprofit American Forests.”

A Black Vision for Development, in the Birthplace of Urban Renewal — 06/24/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“A new $230 million project approved this month by local government authorities to redevelop the neighborhood puts Black people in the driver’s seat of the Hill District’s remaking. It’s a test of the nagging question: Can racist urban redevelopment practices of the past ever be corrected with more urban redevelopment?”

A Piet Oudolf-designed Garden at the Vitra Campus Makes Its Full-bloom Debut — 06/21/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Typical of Oudolf-designed landscapes, the garden at the Vitra campus embraces a naturalistic, almost wild appearance achieved through a rigorous, highly precise planning process and the use of self-regenerating species usually ignored in popular garden design in favor of more decorative plants.”

Jörg Gläscher’s COVID-19-Inspired Forest Waves

C19/18 / Jörg Gläscher

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a daily reminder of the awesome power of mother nature to foil the plans of humans. Many scientists, landscape architects, and planners believe the virus, which is theorized to have originated in bats in western China, spread because of human expansion into complex ecosystems and the rise of wet markets where diverse species and humans mix. As humans damage the intricate web of relationships in ecosystems, virus risks increase.

As the second rush of COVID-19 hit Europe in fall 2020, photographer and artist Jörg Gläscher transformed his own concerns about the spread of the virus into a compelling land art project in a forest near Hamburg, Germany.

C19/18 / Jörg Gläscher

There, he gathered dead wood, which he organized into nine wave forms. The largest is 13 feet (4 meters) high and 29 feet (9 meters) wide. After photographing a wave, he took the installation apart to form a new one, temporarily re-arranging the forest floor.

C19/18 / Jörg Gläscher

Gläscher told Colossal: “I was working (with the idea of) the pure power of nature, the all-destroying force, which brings one of the richest countries in the world to a completely still stand. A wave is a periodic oscillation or a unique disturbance to the state of a system.”

C19/18 / Jörg Gläscher

On his website, Gläscher includes a poem about his work, which explores his negotiation with nature and the virus:

“Observations are manifold, individual, not directly transferable and can be experienced in many different ways. A perceived object can generate impact in numerous ways. Is it standing still? Has it moved? Nothing is ever as it seems.

Are appearances therefore deceptive? No, they are not necessarily deceptive, but they join me on a journey, wash over me, swirl through me, make me anxious, retreat, and then rush towards me all over again. ‘But that can’t be’ says the left, ‘but I see and feel it’ says the right half of my brain.

I can go through them, stop them, touch them, but everything comes to a standstill and goes no further. I have to let it go. Standing up, the second wave rolls over me. It is unique, it was unique. I lift my head, take it by the hand and recognize the vibration and the recurring sensation, and with it the fear disappears. Should it come, I will be ready.”

Learn more about Gläscher’s documentary photography and photojournalism work and check out his Instagram.