Walter Hood: Landscapes Can Tell New Stories

Saint Monica’s Tears / Hood Design Studio

Semiotics involves the study of signs and symbols. In a virtual lecture organized by the National Building Museum, landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, kept returning to the idea of re-evaluating existing signs and symbols in American landscapes and creating meaningful new ones that speak to diverse audiences.

Designed landscapes use symbols to tell stories about places and communities. But for Hood, it’s clear that landscapes too often use symbols to create “fictions,” narratives told by someone else. This presents communities that have not expressed themselves before with opportunities to tell new stories that resonate with an increasingly diverse public.

Hood began his lecture by sharing a few recent projects, including Saint Monica’s Tears in Santa Monica, California (see above). When the Spaniards arrived, there were sacred springs named Kuruvungna by the local Tongva tribe. When Father Juan Crespi saw the springs, he thought of Saint Monica’s eyes. Saint Monica (Santa Monica in Spanish) is known as the “weeping saint,” as she shed tears over her son Augustine’s “hedonistic lifestyle.”

Speaking to a Tongva elder, Hood learned about the lost landscape that existed before the Spanish colonialists arrived. He wanted to design a reminder of this landscape in the midst of today’s busy commercial and tourist mecca. “I wanted to create a duality — a conversation between the present and past — and explore materials that can help us remember the past,” he said. At a metro station, he designed large sand stones in Indian trapezoidal forms to make up a wall, with hand-made glass tears that form streaks running down the wall’s face.

A public art piece Hood designed more than a decade ago in Oakland, California, 7th Street Dancing Lights + Gateway, includes light poles that honor the community’s jazz and blues history. The artwork culminates in a gateway above a four-lane street with etched portraits of leading Black American figures — Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Saint Monica’s Tears, the projects brings to light a little known aspect of history — the Black history that defines 7th street in West Oakland. One West Oakland resident told him that each morning, seeing “the signs gave him confidence to go into the city every day. Seeing them ablaze gave him peace.”

7th Street Dancing Lights + Gateway / Hood Design Studio

Hood’s recent book Black Landscapes Matter, co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA, came out of efforts, like the two projects just mentioned, to “change the semiotic,” and therefore change mindsets.

Hood had watched footage of the scene where Michael Brown was killed by police and wondered why these killings were always happening in the same places — liquor stores, the middle of empty streets. He initiated a series of lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, which then provided the foundation for the book. In the book and lecture, he returned to the ideas of signs and symbols in the landscape — and how they reflect different narratives for different communities.

One place for Hood to explore these ideas was the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab, an initiative to re-imagine the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., which is increasingly threatened by rising sea levels brought on by climate change.

Here, Hood and his team imagined a “speculative future” and decided to “do something different.” “I didn’t want to fix Washington, D.C.; D.C. is a fiction anyway.” Instead, Hood Design Studio proposed an elevated ringed pathway above a Tidal Basin returned to its natural wetlands. He imagined Black tourists and locals visiting D.C. to discover the untold Black history of the landscape.

Tidal Basin Ideas Lab submission / Hood Design Studio

In Nauck, Arlington, Virginia, Hood and his team are re-imagining a space dedicated to John Robinson, Jr., a beloved figure who passed away in 2010, as a true town square. Prior to emancipation, a community of freed slaves created Freedman’s Village, a space now taken up by Arlington National Cemetery. As the cemetery was created, the community was forced to move to this area of Virginia.

Hood said the community’s real name isn’t Nauck, but Green Valley, as this is the name used by the Freedman’s Village diaspora who moved there. As such, Hood wanted to make sure the new Nauck Town Square is very green and feels like a place of refuge.

Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio

Hood also designed a gilded sentinel that spells out “FREED” and then turned it so it stands vertically. “It’s a celebration of early freed people. Nauck now has a different name and symbols — 40-feet-tall, gilded, and lit.” The sentinel itself is comprised of a pattern made up of slave badges.

Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio

In the historic downtown LaVilla, Florida, Hood designed the Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, which honors the brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson who composed the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in LaVilla and lived in a home on the park site in the early 1900s.

Hood said the community was once known as a Black commercial street, lined by flophouses and shotgun homes. “It was the Great Black Way, and there are ghosts of that neighborhood still there.” Hood is designing a new park that has gardens and an amphitheater. A shotgun house will be stenciled with lyrics from the Johnson brothers and form the foundation of a new stage. There’s also a “poet’s walk,” with inspirational quotes.

Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park / Hood Design Studio
Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park / Hood Design Studio
Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park / Hood Design Studio

For the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, Hood Design Studio is imagining a new landscape that can speak to the vast African diaspora in the U.S. who were brought to the country against their will. “Some 40 percent of the slave diaspora landed in Charleston.” The museum is near now buried landing places where “people were bought, sold, and perished.” It’s also near the aquarium, harbor, and the Black church where nearly a dozen people were killed by a white supremacist.

The old landing place where slaves disembarked in the U.S. for the first time has been “erased, built upon, forgotten.” Hood thinks its critical to exhume the history of the IAAM site, which is almost a burial ground, given so many perished there.

In her books, Toni Morrison has relayed the sentiment — there is no place for me to go and sit and hear my ancestors, Hood said. This idea inspired him to design a “landscape of memorial” at the museum site. He added that too often for Black Americans, “there is no tree, park, square — no place to think of who came before” — and the IAAM can provide this for the African diaspora.

The IAAM, designed in partnership with architecture firms Pei, Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan, will be raised up 13 feet off the ground in order to protect against flooding and sea level rise. The elevated structure created the opportunity for a plaza below the building where Hood is designing a landscape of crushed shells that refer to the sea floor.

International African American Museum / Pei Cobb Freed

Within this plane, Hood has etched forms of slaves who were chained head to toe together in galley ships that crossed the Atlantic. The corpses are marked with shells, in reference to the unknown many who perished on the journey and rest at the bottom of the ocean.

International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

Surrounding the building are a series of gardens that include sweetgrass, which has been used by the Gullah community of the low country of the Carolinas to make artful baskets for centuries; rice fields, which highlight the role of Carolina Gold rice farming in the history of the region; and African ethno-botanical gardens, which will include a rotating display of plants with medicinal and other healing benefits.

African ethno-botanical gardens at the International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

Two walls will provide frames for sculptures of “rice negroes” who worked in the fields of the Carolinas. “They are reflective figures, who appear trapped,” Hood said.

International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

During a Q&A session, moderator Maisie Hughes, ASLA, a co-founder of The Urban Studio, argued that emancipation isn’t often viewed as worthy of memorializing. She wondered why some events are memorialized and not others.

Hood said that W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, argues that “landscapes are fictions.” Institutions and communities design landscapes to create certain narratives, and this has occurred throughout history.

In ancient Egypt, one side of the Nile River represented death while the other bank represented life. In the Taos pueblo community, children lived on side of a river until they were old enough to cross over to the other side. Landscape use symbols to tell stories and create identities.

“The problem is that we are too often subjected to someone else’s narratives. Colonialism created its own fictions that were told to us. It’s fine if you want to have that story, but don’t subject me to that.” Too many communities have “never had an opportunity to own space, create their own narratives, and articulate differences.” Hood has set out to change that.

Celebrate World Landscape Architecture Month 2021

(Bottom Left): 2020 ASLA Honor Award in General Design. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park. Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. TURENSCAPE | Image by Kongjian Yu, Turenscape (Middle): 2020 ASLA Honor Award in Urban Design. The 606. Chicago, Illinois, United States. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. | Image by Alex MacLean (Top Right): 2019 ASLA Honor Award in General Design. Barangaroo Reserve. Sydney, Australia. PWP Landscape Architecture | Image by PWP Landscape Architecture

Last year, ASLA celebrated World Landscape Architecture Month (WLAM) with the theme “Life Grows Here” in the places and spaces that landscape architects create in communities around the world. This year, ASLA is building on that success with our new campaign: Growing Together.

ASLA’s vision is “healthy, beautiful, and resilient places for all.” This April, we will show how landscape architecture projects embody that vision in all communities — communities of all colors, socioeconomic backgrounds, and abilities. We want to highlight how the spaces landscape architects create promote and facilitate people growing together with each other and with nature.

Keeping in mind restraints like the ongoing pandemic, this year’s campaign is designed to be flexible and versatile and focused on diversity in the landscape architecture profession.

ASLA members, landscape architects, and the public can participate by:

And as part of this year’s World Landscape Architecture Month, ASLA is also teaming up with EarthDay.org to sponsor The Great Global Cleanup 2021. ASLA members and the public can organize and join local cleanup projects as part of the effort.

Now in its third year, the Great Global Cleanup is building on its record as the world’s largest coordinated volunteer event, providing opportunities for individuals and organizations to make positive, tangible impacts on our environment.

Emerging from the coronavirus pandemic and guided by updated safety protocols, the collective goal this month is to remove millions more pieces of trash from our green spaces, urban communities, and waterways.

“Pollution is a prodigious issue in public open spaces — causing flooding, spreading illness, contaminating water sources, and at the root of a myriad of other problems,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of ASLA.

“Plastic and other types of pollution challenge every community every day,” said Kathleen Rogers, EarthDay.org President. “They are contaminating our oceans, clogging our drains, causing floods, spreading disease, transmitting respiratory infections, and killing wildlife; and low-income communities suffer the worst impacts. Thank you to ASLA for joining our efforts to restore our natural and urban landscapes.”

The goal is simple: as many local, pandemic-conscious cleanups as possible.

Organize a cleanup: We’re hoping every ASLA chapter can host at least one cleanup in April, but any member can take the lead. When organizing a cleanup, be sure to comply with all federal and local safety and health guidelines related to COVID-19.

Join a cleanup: Many cleanups have already been organized across the country. See where you can join in.

Register your cleanup on ASLA’s portal: Visit the portal to register your cleanup and keep track of your progress! The data you enter will be aggregated with cleanups across the country.

RSVP to Frederick Law Olmsted’s 199th Birthday Celebration

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY / tupungato, istockphoto.com

By Olmsted 200

To mark Frederick Law Olmsted’s 199th birthday, Olmsted 200 is inviting everyone to participate in a special two-part event — a viewing of Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks, narrated by actress Kerry Washington, and a panel discussion with landscape architects and park directors from around the country.

Stream the film for free at your leisure from April 24 to 25 and then join Olmsted 200 via Zoom on April 26 at 5:30 pm EST for a discussion on Olmsted’s thinking about today’s social, environmental, economic, and health challenges. TIME Magazine’s senior correspondent for climate, Justin Worland, will moderate.

Panelists include:

  • Dr. Thaisa Way, FASLA, Resident Program Director for Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks
  • Happy Haynes, Executive Director of Denver Parks and Recreation
  • Justin DiBerardinis, Director of FDR Park, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

To learn more about the birthday celebration, RSVP on the event page.

This event is hosted by the National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP), the managing partner of Olmsted 200. ASLA is one of ten founding partners of Olmsted 200, the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO).

Olmsted 200

April 26, 2022, marks the 200th birthday of FLO— author, journalist, public official, city planner, and father of American landscape architecture—and Olmsted 200 is teaming up with organizations across the country to celebrate him all year long.

Olmsted and his successor firms designed thousands of landscape projects across the country, transforming American life and culture. His vision of public parks for all people — and their ability to strengthen communities and promote public well-being — are now more important than ever.

Through events, education, and advocacy at the local and national levels, Olmsted 200 ensures that Olmsted’s legacy lives on by renewing public and policy commitments to the preservation and maintenance of our historic parks and places.

We hope you’ll use Olmsted 200 as a resource to find parks near you, share your stories, and celebrate with us.

Visit the Olmsted 200 website for event information, blog posts written by diverse thought leaders, teaching materials, and so much more.

Subscribe to the Olmsted 200 newsletter for updates and inspiration and follow Olmsted 200 on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use #CelebrateOlmsted, #ParksForAll, #KnowFLO to join the campaign conversation online.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16-31)

The Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland, designed by Perkins&Will / Courtesy of Sahar Coston-Hardy, via Metropolis

Moving the Workplace Outdoors — 03/29/21, Metropolis
“‘There is an increased value of outdoor space as a result of the pandemic,’ said Zan Stewart, associate principal landscape architecture, Perkins&Will. ‘Central Park in New York and the grand boulevards of Paris both emerged from pandemics. Our teams can be happier, healthier and more productive with access to nature.'”

Rooted in St. Louis: The Creation of a Campus Forest — 03/29/21, Student Life: The Independent Newspaper of the Washington University in St. Louis
“The diversity on campus speaks for itself––it is a testament to great landscape design that you do not notice all the work and planning that went into it. Yet the design behind the campus landscape, and its hidden mechanics, are as impressive as the results.”

Palm Beach Landscape Designer Williams Pens Book, ‘The Graphic Garden’ — 03/24/21, Palm Beach Daily News
“Those who dream of an elegant garden, filled with inviting natural elements that provide solace from the daily hustle and bustle, will find a kindred spirit in landscape designer Keith Williams.”

A Black Architect Is Transforming the Landscape of Golf — 03/22/21, The New York Times
“Brandon Johnson developed a love of golf and course design at an early age. He has mastered a field that has historically lacked diversity.”

Biden Team Prepares $3 Trillion in New Spending for the Economy — 03/22/21, The New York Times
“A pair of proposals would invest in infrastructure, education, work force development and fighting climate change, with the aim of making the economy more productive.”

Williamsburg’s Cove-side Towers Are Still Moving, Get a Redesign — 03/18/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The additional waterfront parks, inlets, and beaches, according to Two Trees, are expected to act as a storm buffer and could protect over 500 properties further inland in the event of a flood.”

Chuck Schumer Wants to Replace Every Gas Car in America with an Electric Vehicle — 03/17/21, The Verge
“Under the proposal, anyone who trades in their gas car for an electric one would get a ‘substantial’ point-of-sale discount, Schumer says. He wouldn’t say how much of a discount, only that it would be ‘deep.'”

WXY Reveals a Sustainable Master Plan for Downtown Davenport, Iowa — 03/16/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The Downtown Davenport Partnership (DDP) commissioned the New York-based WXY, Chicago real estate consultants SB Friedman Development Advisors, and New York City engineers Sam Schwartz Engineering to draw up a path toward downtown resiliency that would also spur economic development.”

The Case for the Rural-to-Urban Transect

Transect Urbanism: Readings in Human Ecology / ORO Editions

By Grace Mitchell Tada

Imagine a tool that banishes the social and environmental ills of modern urban planning and its suburban sprawl, instead constructing an approach that reconciles urbanism and environmentalism. Meanwhile, the tool also enables choice and equity in how and where individuals live.

Architect, urban designer, and DPZ CoDesign principal Andrés Duany insists such a tool exists. It’s the Rural-to-Urban Transect, at once a tool and a theory, and it’s a balm to the recklessly sprawling modern life now ubiquitous across the U.S., which takes the form of socio-economic uniformity, automobile dependence, and conspicuous land consumption.

The book Transect Urbanism: Readings in Human Ecology, edited by Duany and Brian Falk, who is director of the Center for Applied Transect Studies, presents a collection of essays and descriptive graphics that examine the Rural-to-Urban Transect and explains its potential to create both a better quality of life within communities and better environmental practices across all scales.

This transect identifies and allocates elements of urbanism and their suitability to varying environments. It’s a theory of human settlement: an “ordering system” that harnesses a geographic gradient to organize natural habitats, including human habitats. Every human activity, and its resulting element in the urban fabric, can be pegged to a locus somewhere along that gradient. These elements comprise an “interrelated continuum of natural and human habitats—natural, rural-sub-urban, and urban—with different settlement densities and opportunities for social encounter and human activity,” the authors write.

Though the concept of a transect was not defined as such until the 18th century, Duany describes it as a pattern of human settlement both timeless and cross-cultural: the rural-to-urban spectrum can be traced to settlements from ancient Pompeii to ancient China.

In the late 18th century, Alexander von Humboldt first articulated the transect in the modern sense. Joseph Meyer illustrated the concept, drawing Humboldt’s voyage to South America to include the natural habitat and conditions above and below the ground’s surface.

“Tableau Physique,” Alexander von Humboldt / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In the 19th century, Sir Patrick Geddes’ illustrated “Valley Section” incorporated human presence in varying habitat zones. The humans, per the times, always exploited their environment.

“Valley Section,” Sir Patrick Geddes / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In 1969, Ian McHarg posited the next seminal transect. Duany finds it incomplete: it failed to include, or even suggest, human habitat. Moreover, this absence perpetuated the dualism between human and nature that underpins environmental thinking — “nature is sacred, and the city profane.” This dualism ultimately produced the chasm between environmentalism and urbanism.

In practice, McHarg-inspired planning has yielded countless communities that prioritize preserved “environmental” areas at the expense of higher density. For example, South Carolina’s Hilton Head and California’s Sea Ranch sanction only single-use zoning. “The developed areas of these projects remain, in their socioeconomic and environmental performance, indistinguishable from sprawl: everyone drives everywhere for everything,” Duany and Falk write.

Ian McHarg’s Natural Transect / Center for Applied Transect Studies

In 1994, the transect was revitalized as an ordering system at the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), when the group — proponents of “density, connectivity, and contiguity” — sought a theory establishing connections between elements of urbanism. The Rural-to-Urban Transect did so by defining six recognizable transect zones and their interrelationships: Natural (T1), Rural (T2), Sub-urban (T3), General Urban (T4), Urban Center (T5), and Urban Core (T6).

The Rural-to-Urban Transect / Center for Applied Transect Studies

Duany asserts that the Rural-to-Urban Transect extends “the environmental protocol of McHarg into the city,” thus including people. It becomes a tool with which to design, correlating elements along a rural-to-urban continuum, enabling “the basis for a system of zoning that creates complex, contextually appropriate human environments.” Adapted from landscape ecology, each of the six transect zones contain elements that engender and amplify a place’s character.

This transect’s extension of the McHargian protocol yields arguably two of its greatest boons: its potential to unite environmentalism and urbanism and its capacity to support diverse, equitable communities. The divide between humans and nature is not new — Duany traces this chasm back to the Old Testament — and it manifests in the 20th century as environmentalism’s defensive stance toward urbanism.

The dominant ecological disposition “privileges a pristine nature and regards the presence of humans as a disturbance” to a system understood according to its pre-human condition. “A good human community can be ‘green’ only by being invisible,” Duany and Falk argue. Urbanism has thus been viewed as “a negative condition, never as an organization of positive choices for the improvement of human communities.” And as a result, environmentalism is expressed in technical and regulatory systems that promote suburbanization — from pervasive landscaping to mandated on-site stormwater treatment.

This paradigm fails communities when prioritizing nature means seeing “social space as blight.” “Whole communities of humans have been pushed aside for highway construction, but certain fish and fowl have caused even the most single-minded transportation department officials to reconsider their designs,” Duany and Falk contend. But only certain communities get pushed aside. Favoring nature also usually translates to favoring certain social and racial groups at the expense of others.

According to the authors, their Rural-to-Urban Transect can mitigate these insidious tendencies. Rather than holding economy and culture as beyond nature, this transect accommodates all elements, rooted in the belief that humans are essential to environmental discourse, in all their various lifestyles along the rural-to-urban spectrum.

Most importantly, Duany and the other authors include everyone in their conception and explicitly those who historically have had little choice in how they live. Systems based in the Rural-to-Urban Transect encourage a plurality of viewpoints and human habitats. They promote equity.

Echternach, Luxembourg, by Léon Krier (left), and Annapolis, Maryland, by Charles Barrett (right) / Center for Applied Transect Studies

Key to the Rural-to-Urban Transect is its basis in form. Many planning initiatives are based in use and therefore manifest as prohibitions and separation. Cities filter community-making through a sieve of engineering standards, zoning ordinances, and other regulatory mechanisms long before designers enter the scene. Duany asserts that this existing framework, however, can be re-imagined by their transect: zoning based in form can yield certain physical outcomes and settlement patterns. Rather than zones that simplify and separate, transect code ensures fruitful relationships and adjacencies, from the local to regional scale. Transect-inspired zones preserve character and diversity according to place.

Essays in Transect Urbanism explain how these successes of the transect can be achieved: one details how to analyze an urban transect, one discusses governance along the transect, another discusses retail models within it. Duany includes a chapter describing the transect-based SmartCode that he has developed and implemented across various cities. Another chapter gives hope that existing sprawl can be repaired into a paradigm more resilient. Other essays consider the Rural-to-Urban Transect ontologically: the reason for six zones, and whether it qualifies as natural law, as certain people — Duany included — claim. The range of essays, from the practical to the theoretical, and the extensive illustrations make it a book suited for the student and the professional, for the planner, the landscape architect, and others thinking critically about the built environment.

As of 2019, the Form-Based Codes Institute identified 439 transect-based codes that had been adopted worldwide. Clearly, more communities do not embrace such thinking than do, and our society has much work to accomplish before divorcing itself from suburban sprawl. Duany in part blames the theory of landscape urbanism, which he claims perpetuates sprawl through the guise of aesthetics. He argues: “human biophilia is such that an image of anything with leaves will tilt the selection in its favor.”

Certainly, though, criticisms of the Rural-to Urban Transect arise: it is too simplified; its mere six zones are insufficient to account for all settlement and natural area types; the intentional rules of its zones are undesirably prescriptive; or it lacks consideration of urban ecology and biodiversity.

Yet, as made by the case presented in Transect Urbanism, the Rural-to-Urban Transect can serve as a noble tool in the reformation of our urban fabric. In one of his essays, written in 2005, Duany warns that a failure to square environmental ethos and social equity concerns with free market choice as perpetuated by the status-quo sprawl may only be solved by “a long economic emergency…that none of us should wish upon the nation.”

As millions of Americans grapple with job and home losses, among many other kinds of loss, we’re in the midst of an emergency. Released into a pandemic climate that has made us skeptical of dense urbanism, this book arrives with special urgency.

Now is as ripe a time as ever to give a different paradigm a chance, even if doing so will also require specific and convincing accommodations to the moment.

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

Revisiting the Miasma Theory

Cholera “tramples the victors & the vanquished both.” Robert Seymour. 1831. U.S. National Library of Medicine / Wikipedia, Public Domain.

19th century sanitation engineer George E. Waring, Jr. was a miasmaist. He believed in the miasma theory, which holds that toxic vapors emanated from damp soil, rotted vegetation, and pools of standing water. These toxic vapors were understood to be created by the Earth and interact with the atmosphere and cause disease in American cities.

According to Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, Waring was a “marginal figure,” but he had interesting ideas about how to “modify the climate to improve health.” In a virtual lecture hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Seavitt Nordenson said Waring was incorrect about the mechanisms for spreading disease — he didn’t understand the concept of vectors, like mosquitoes — but his drainage and sanitation solutions were “surprisingly successful.” A year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth revisiting Waring’s ideas about the connections between the Earth, atmosphere, disease — and the maintenance of public spaces.

Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., full-length seated portrait, New York, NY, 1897. Photo by Hollinger & Rockey. / Library of Congress

Waring wrote numerous books, created the drainage plan for Central Park, and later became an influential sanitation commissioner of New York City. Born in Pound Ridge, New York, in 1833, he studied agricultural chemistry. In his early 20s, he wrote a book on scientific farming that explored “atmospheric and molecular matter, the interchange of Earth and air,” Seavitt Nordenson explained. He called for “mechanical cultivation to reduce water in soil” through the use of “thorough under draining, deep disturbance of the soil, and trenches.”

Because of this book, he was later hired by former U.S. presidential candidate Horace Greeley to create a drainage system for his farm in Chappaqua, New York. At his estate, Waring created an elaborate herringbone-patterned drainage system that directed water to streams, with the goal of improving the marshy soil for farming, but he would soon also use for eradicating imagined wet soil-borne disease.

Later, in 1857, Waring apprenticed as a drainage engineer with Egbert L. Viele, who had previously created a comprehensive survey and study of Manhattan, examining the marsh, meadow, and constructed lands of the island. The study included the land that would make up the future Central Park, a land that had been home to the freed Black community of Seneca Village, which was later cleared by the city government to make way for the park. Waring’s early drainage studies of Manhattan informed the many entries submitted as part of a design competition for the new Central Park.

In 1858, Waring was promoted to drainage engineer by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who won the design competition for Central Park. Waring created an elaborate drainage system for the park landscape, which included low-lying wetlands. Waring had found favor with Olmsted. “Olmsted too was a miasmaist. Draining the park was framed as disease suppression.”

Men Standing on Willowdale Arch, Central Park, New York, NY, 1862. Waring is second from left. Photo by Victor Prevost. / New York Public Library

Considered the largest drainage project of his time, Waring designed a comprehensive system that directed water to constructed lakes and reservoirs. By 1859, the lower part of the park had been drained through a series of ceramic tubes buried deep into the soil that piped water directly to streams and ponds. “There was a mechanical movement to the low points,” where water would flow to.

George E. Waring, Jr., Map of Drainage System on Lower Part of the Central Park, New York, NY, 1859. / New York Historical Society.

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Olmsted left his position at Central Park and became executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, where he was charged with reducing the death rate from disease for 8,000 sick and wounded soldiers. Olmsted created field hospitals in places he thought free of dangerous miasmas. Meanwhile, Waring resigned from Central Park work to become a major and lead cavalry in the Civil War.

After the Civil War and the publication of his book Drainage for Profit, Drainage for Health, Waring took up a post in Memphis, Tennessee, a city that had suffered severe epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, killing some 5,000 people in 1878 alone. While Waring didn’t understand the mosquito was a key disease vector, his plan for attacking standing water in building basements and streets had a positive effect on reducing disease. His comprehensive plan to separate the conveyance of stormwater and sewage, which was eventually implemented by the city, ended the health crisis.

Upon returning to New York City as sanitation commissioner, Waring applied his miasma theory to cleaning up the streets of the city. At the time, horses were leaving millions of pounds of manure and urine on the streets each day. Horse corpses were also left to rot. Garbage piles ran feet-deep and were cleared by ad hoc groups of unemployed.

Seavitt Nordenson thinks Waring elevated street cleaning and maintenance into a “performance,” targeting garbage as contributing to disease and declining morals. Taking a “militaristic approach,” he hired an army of sanitation workers that he dressed in all white. Nicknamed the “white wings,” they were given hand carts and brooms and also took on snow removal.

“White wings” sanitation workers, during Waring’s era / The Bowery Boys, NYC History

Waring would lead parades on horseback, with thousands of sanitation workers in army formation marching down the street. “It was a triumph of sanitation.”

Sanitation workers on parade, 1896. Organized by George Waring / Discovering NYC Twitter

After leaving the sanitation department of New York, Waring was dispatched to Havana, Cuba, by President McKinley to help solve their yellow fever epidemic. Until 1902, the U.S. had a colonial presence in Cuba, and American soldiers were dying of disease. While establishing Havana’s department of street cleaning, Waring contracted yellow fever from a mosquito. A day after his return to New York, he died, his remains quarantined on an island in New York Harbor.

Seavitt Nordenson said the legacy of miasmaists like Waring and Olmsted is the public health focus on the air — the intermixing of atmosphere and Earth. While Waring was a “brilliant failure” in terms of his scientific theories, a “great mind but incorrect,” Seavitt Nordenson also wondered: was he right?

During the pandemic, everyone has become a miasmaist to a degree, imagining the invisible droplets we know are floating in the air.

Seavitt Nordenson is currently completing a book on this topic with the University of Texas Press, with support from the Graham Foundation and the Foundation for Landscape Studies.

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

Proposed redesign of Hirshhorn sculpture garden by Hiroshi Sugimoto / Hirshhorn Museum

Hirshhorn Museum Is Close to Finalizing Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Garden Revamp — 03/12/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Sugimoto’s design will be only the second comprehensive update of the Washington, D.C. museum’s Gordon Bunshaft-designed campus, which debuted in 1974. Bunshaft’s garden, as well as its extensive 1981 renovation, was influenced by Japanese landscape architecture and garden design.”

The New Trend in Home Gardens—Landscaping to Calm Anxiety — 03/12/21, The Wall Street Journal
“Loud hues don’t cultivate serenity. ‘Reds, oranges and yellow are hot colors that stir passion,’ said New York landscape architect Edmund Hollander, who recommends mining the other end of the spectrum for tranquility. ‘The gradation of blues into greens is almost the colors of a stream, with whites and creams representing movement, if you will.'”

Toronto Swaps Google-backed, Not-So-Smart City Plans for People-Centered Vision — 03/12/21, The Guardian
“Now, Canada’s largest city is moving towards a new vision of the future, in which affordability, sustainability and environmentally friendly design are prioritized over the trappings of new and often untested technologies.”

The Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign: Paving Paradise — 03/11/21, The Wall Street Journal
“The Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden in Washington is nearly perfect; of course, it must be destroyed. This is the paradox of landscape architecture: The more sensitive and subtle the garden, the more invisible it is—even to its custodians. At a certain point they can mistake it for an opportunity to exploit rather than a sacred trust to protect.”

Philly’s Iconic Ben Franklin Parkway to Get a Major Redesign – 03/05/21, WHYY
“Philadelphia is moving forward on a long-term plan to overhaul much of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with an eye toward improving access for people walking and biking.”

Big Step Forward for $50 Billion Plan to Save Louisiana Coast — 03/05/11, The New York Times
“An environmental assessment said the project’s next step would largely benefit coastal areas, though it might also affect some marine life, especially dolphins.”

The Bike Boom Is Real, Says New Mode Share Data — 03/05/21, Greater Greater Washington
“Since 2007, the share of people in the Washington region who ride bikes has gone up, while driving and riding transit have dropped, according to a gigantic once-per-decade report.”

What About Jane? – 03/03/21, Urban Omnibus
“Jacobs’ legacy is divided. On the one hand she should be seen as an analyst of gentrification, not simply a harbinger of its ill effects. But she also treats with kid gloves the social phenomenon that has made gentrification such an urgent topic today: race.”

Positive Impact in Rapid Time: AARP Community Challenge Grants

AARP is once again offering its Community Challenge Grants, which range from a few hundred dollars up to tens of thousands, to non-profit organizations and local governments. AARP seeks to fund permanent or temporary small-scale projects that can be designed and implemented in just a few months. This year, the focus is on projects that support community equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.

Landscape architects and designers, please take note: AARP is prioritizing projects that “improve open spaces, parks, and access to other amenities; and deliver a range of transportation and mobility options that increase connectivity, walkability, bikeability, wayfinding, access to transportation options, and roadway improvements.” They are also interested in projects that support community recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Since 2017, AARP’s program has awarded 560 grants totaling $6.1 million, which have resulted in rapid-fire actions that improve community livability for all ages — not just older adults. 60 percent of grants have gone to 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), and 501(c)(6) nonprofits, and the rest to local governments. 42 percent of grants have gone to urban communities, 38 percent to rural areas, and 20 percent to suburban areas.

According to AARP, 45 percent of grants have had a catalytic impact, helping grantees gain additional funds and support from public and private organizations. And 81 percent of grants helped grantees “overcome policy barriers and advance change.”

Applications are due April 14, 2021, and all projects must be completed by November 10, 2021.

ASLA Releases Racial Equity Action Plan

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, Washington, D.C. / Oehme, van Sweden | OvS. Image: copyright George E. Brown

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) released its Racial Equity Action Plan – a Five-Point Plan to continue the process of eradicating the systems and structures within the landscape architecture profession and larger design community that have resulted in limited opportunities and recognition of the deserving Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) professionals who’ve led and produced important, ground-breaking, and honorable work.

“ASLA and its members reject bigotry and racism in all its forms, and anti-Black racism in particular, as wrong and fundamentally inconsistent with our mission and values,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “ASLA is putting that conviction into action. ASLA is in the business of changing the world through the art and science of design. Our Five-Point Racial Equity Plan of Action is the next progression of our journey together.”

The plan sets actionable goals and benchmarks for the organization and for the landscape architecture profession. These include:

Diversifying the pipeline

Acknowledging racism in the profession and honoring the forgotten

Reshaping the conversation and transforming frameworks

Leading through education, conversation, and advocacy

Maintaining meaningful, measurable progress

10 New Projects in Online Exhibition Demonstrate Value of Landscape Architecture as a Climate Solution

NatureScape homeowner in Orange County, California / Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

ASLA’s Smart Policies for a Changing Climate Online Exhibition demonstrates how landscape architects are designing smart solutions to climate impacts, such as flooding, extreme heat, drought, and sea level rise. 10 new projects added to the exhibition exemplify best practice approaches to landscape architecture in the era of climate change.

The projects include a mix of landscape-based and often nature-based solutions across the U.S., which range in scale from residential and school landscapes to master plans for entire cities and counties. There is also a focus on projects that address climate injustices and meet the needs of historically-marginalized and underserved communities.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard / site design group, ltd. (site)

“The projects clearly show how landscape architects can help all kinds of communities reduce their risk to increasingly severe climate impacts. Landscape architects design with nature, which leads to more resilient solutions that also improve community health, safety, and well-being over the long-term,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO

With the new projects, which were selected with ASLA’s Climate Action Committee, there are now a total of 30 projects featured in the online exhibition. Each project was selected to illustrate policy recommendations outlined in the 2017 report produced by ASLA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience.

Explore all the new projects:

Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan
Cuyahoga County, Ohio | SmithGroup

Being solely dependent on cars increases communities’ risks to climate impacts. Through the 815-mile Cuyahoga Greenways Framework Plan created by landscape architects and planners at SmithGroup, some 59 communities will have healthier and more resilient transportation connections to downtown Cleveland, Lake Erie, and each other.

Green Schoolyards
Vancouver, Washington | nature+play designs

Too few schools offer educational green spaces that can spark children’s appreciation for nature, which is critical to helping them become future Earth stewards. Jane Tesner Kleiner, ASLA, with nature+play designs partnered with school leaders, students, and volunteers to design native plant gardens, meadows, and tree groves that create environmental education opportunities; support pollinators, such as butterflies, bees, and birds; and also manage stormwater.

Houston Arboretum and Nature Center
Houston, Texas | Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand

By 2012, more than 50 percent of the tree canopy of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center had been lost due to drought and hurricanes made more severe by climate change. By removing trees and restoring the original prairie, savannah, and woodland ecosystems found at the Arboretum, landscape architects with Design Workshop and Reed Hilderbrand designed a landscape naturally resilient to future climate shocks.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard
Chicago, Illinois | site design group, ltd (site)

Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those found in the South Side of Chicago, are disproportionally affected by climate impacts such as flooding. Through the Space to Grow program, a flooded asphalt schoolyard at the John W. Cook Academy, an elementary school on the South Side, was redesigned by landscape architects at site design group, ltd (site) to become a green learning and play space that captures stormwater.

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design
Atlanta, Georgia | Andropogon

Through their research capabilities and campus infrastructure, universities and schools can also help solve the climate crisis. For the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, landscape architects with Andropogon integrated an innovative water management system that captures and reuses 100 percent of stormwater runoff from the building and also cleanses and reuses building greywater in the ecological landscape.

NatureScape
Orange County, California | Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

Climate change has severely reduced the availability of fresh water in arid Western states. Turf lawns require vast amounts of water to maintain and also provide no habitat for native plant and animal species. Through NatureScape, an innovative program in Orange County, California, Jodie Cook, ASLA, helped homeowners transform their turf front yards into water-saving native plant gardens that can sustain a range of native bird, bee, and butterfly species.

Rain Check 2.0
Buffalo, New York | Buffalo Sewer Authority

Climate change is making communities’ struggles with aging combined sewer systems, which carry both sewage from buildings and stormwater from streets, even worse. With more frequent extreme weather events, these systems now more often overflow, causing untreated sewage to enter water bodies. Rain Check 2.0, an innovative program in Buffalo, New York, led by landscape architect Kevin Meindl, ASLA, offers grants to private landowners to capture stormwater through trees, rain gardens, green roofs and streets.

Randall’s Island Connector
The Bronx, New York | Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA)

Historically marginalized and underserved communities, like those in the South Bronx in New York City, experience higher than average heat risks because they typically have fewer parks and recreational spaces. The lack of safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle access to nearby green spaces exacerbates the problem. Working with two community groups and the New York City government, landscape architects with MNLA designed the Randall’s Island Connector, a ¼-mile-long multi-modal path underneath an Amtrak freight line.

Sapwi Trails Community Park
Thousand Oaks, California | Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group (consulting landscape architects)

In drought-stricken Western states, climate change has added stress to increasingly fragile ecosystems. Instead of moving forward with an earlier plan that could have damaged the Lang Creek ecosystem, planners and landscape architects at the Conejo Recreation & Park District and RRM Design Group designed the Sapwi Trails Community Park to be a model for how to preserve ecological systems while improving access and dramatically reducing water use.

Thornton Creek Water Quality Channel
Seattle, Washington | MIG

Climate change and environmentally-insensitive development in the Pacific Northwest are exacerbating negative impacts on salmon. Grassroots environmental organizations sought to daylight the piped Thornton Creek. A new water quality channel was designed by landscape architects at MIG to clean stormwater runoff from 680 surrounding acres before the water flows into the South Fork of the salmon-bearing Thornton Creek.

Background:

New projects were submitted by ASLA members through an open call ASLA released in 2019. In partnership with the ASLA Climate Action Committee, projects were selected to represent a range of U.S. regions, scales (from residential to county-wide master plans), and firm types.

In 2017, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change & Resilience, which resulted in a report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate and a series of lectures and educational sessions at built environment conferences. In 2019, an exhibition outlining 20 cases that exemplify the policy goals outlined in the report opened at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, D.C., and a companion website was launched.

The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).