The C&O Canal National Historic Park is at a crossroads — it can either be subtly restored, enlivened by the local ecology, and made more accessible, or dramatically re-imagined and redesigned. Earlier this month, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented preliminary conceptual designs to revitalize the canal — offering a spectrum of alternatives, ranging from the understated to the bold.
At the public review session in Georgetown, Alison Greenberg, head of the non-profit Georgetown Heritage, and a partner of the National Park Service in the revitalization efforts, said: “the goal is celebrate and respect the park’s historic character and sense of place” while also making the one-mile stretch of the 182-mile park that runs through Georgetown “sustainable, maintainable, ecologically-sensitive, safe, and accessible.”
Asking the community and visitors what they love about the place, James Corner, ASLA, discovered they most appreciate the “rocky aqueduct, the views of the river, the shade trees, the ability to stroll and have a quick escape to nature, the water, and the serenity.” He described the canal as a “corridor of melancholic charm where you can immerse yourself in pleasure.”
Still, he thinks the canal is also “sadly derelict, feels abandoned, and is unsafe” in places, which is debatable. “There’s no seating, lighting, and the narrow paths create safety issues.” Furthermore, there is a lack of access.
The dilemma for Corner is “how to maintain the heritage — the authenticity — while also promoting new social uses.”
There are concerns, though, that Corners’ proposals are perhaps over-designed for such a historic site. Darwina Neal, FASLA, former past president of ASLA, told us: “Rather than responding to the concern that ‘first and foremost, we have to respect the history that’s here’ — as stated by Kevin Brandt, the National Park Service’s superintendent of the C&O Canal — it seems like the designers are trying to turn this into an on-grade ‘High Line.’ As a landscape architect for the National Capital region of NPS, I worked on many projects along the canal from 1964 until I retired in 2009, and it is possible to improve the safety, accessibility, and functionality of this section of the canal without adversely impacting its historic integrity, as many of these proposals would, if implemented.”
Corner walked the 100-plus members of the community who attended the public review meeting through key aspects of his firm’s concepts.
He reiterated that his firm’s ideas are “not fixed or final; we want to use these to evaluate how people feel, and then shape the design.”
Towpath: Now a narrow gravel path with some opportunistic plants, the towpath could be kept the same width as it is now (7 feet) but paved over to improve safety; expanded to 11 feet, through the use of a cantilever, in order to provide space for seating; or widened out to 14 feet, which would also offer opportunities for more plants along the edge, but shrink the profile of the canal itself, also at great cost. A few members of the community noted that limiting the width of the towpath would help keep the space from becoming over-crowded — and help prevent the canal from turning into “Georgetown’s High Line.”
Mile Marker Zero: Many people who live in D.C. haven’t even been to this spot, the start of the 182-mile-long canal. Here, Field Operations offered options that will improve access for both pedestrians and bicyclists, with option B offering the easiest connections with existing networks.
Rock Creek Landscape: According to Field Operations, “This is the missing link between the C&O canal that we know in Georgetown and that area around Mile Marker 0. The challenge here is connecting the towpath with the plethora of bridges and overpasses created by the Whitehurst Freeway. We imagine a boardwalk under K street, and along a carefully-restored creek landscape; an immersive walk through nature and a critical connection for D.C.” The boardwalk path through the forest in Alternative B is far more intrusive into the Rock Creek landscape.
Rock Creek Confluence: Here, Corner presented some of the most transformational proposals. Where the canal turns the corner and heads west, Field Operations wants to introduce paths and bridges to improve connectivity and extend the canal’s towpath and also clean up what is an overgrown, neglected area and turn it into an picnic spot or amphitheater. “We can restore the visual corridor to all the locks.”
Locks: When one of the canal locks is finally restored later this year, at a cost of $6.5 million, there will be a canal boat pulled by mules. One of the main tourist draws for the canal, the mule yard, which is found between 29th and Thomas Jefferson Streets, is also the location of the current NPS office. Field Operations offered different options for the NPS office, boat ticket area and launch, and mule staging area.
The Walls: These proposals could really change the feel of the space and have major implications for preservation: Where the canal meets Wisconsin Avenue, Corner proposed cutting into the stone wall to create “more generous access” — a considerable length of stairs and terraces — while also offering wheelchair access with a new elevator. Along Potomac Street, he wants to unify the spaces on either side of the canal — Fish Market Square and Market House Plaza. One option brings in a High Line-like step seating. These options really open up the canal to downtown Georgetown; it will be the decision of the community, historic and design review boards, and NPS if that degree of access is what’s needed.
The Grove: The most straight-forward and constrained of Corner’s proposals. Field Operations simply proposes planting some more trees and stabilizing the path.
The Bend: A stretch between Potomac Street and 34th Street, could be a space for “verdant, garden-like setting with shade” and High Line-like chaise lounges. Field Operations also wants to redevelop the 34th street bridge to make it more accessible. This proposal would dramatically change the vibe of this now-rustic stretch.
The Aqueduct: Another set of bold proposals for a strange space now covered in graffiti, but with its own charm. Corner wants to rehabilitate the structure and create a series of “stepped terraces” to an overlook, potentially framing the views within a trestle. Also in this section of the landscape, Field Operations proposed creating better pedestrian and bicycle connections to the Capital Crescent trail and towpath.
A recent study found 85 percent of parents allow their children under the age of six to use technology at home, despite concerns that too much time with phones, tablets, and computers cuts into their time playing outside. Another study found one-third of all children worldwide spend less than 30 minutes a day outside and half spend less than an hour a day outside, which is lower than the average amount a prison inmate spends outdoors. Meanwhile, childhood obesity rates throughout the developed world have skyrocketed. Now one in five children in the U.S. are obese. What can landscape architects do to combat these trends?
We all spend too much time on our digital toys! When I see a group of teens walking down the street together and texting other friends, I have to admit I feel confused. But lately I’ve been trying to be more optimistic about the role of technology in our lives. I think it’s clear that technology has some benefits for kids—they have access to information quickly and they can connect easily to a wider group of friends. With my son, he’s able to find really obscure musical composition events for teens in Boston in a way he wouldn’t have been able to do before. So, there are real benefits with technology.
Do phones disconnect us from the natural world? Probably, I think. There are lots of studies that say, yes, it does. But I don’t want to be too nostalgic. I think we have to accept that the world has changed. We live a hybridized life.
Just recently, we went to see the redwoods in Northern California, Max had no desire to pull out his phone when we were hiking even though on the car ride there he was texting with friends. It’s really about how compelling a place is.
Young people these days are very nimble. They’re able to toggle between two worlds and use technology to help them better understand the world that they inhabit. As landscape architects, we must embrace the fact that people live in both digital and analog worlds.
But there’s clearly a connection between childhood obesity and technology. As landscape architects, we can help municipalities and cities plan their neighborhoods better because it’s the daily rituals that really matter.
Instead of focusing on large centralized parks, it’s important for us to also advocate for a more atomized green neighborhood plan where kids can walk through a pocket park, a neighborhood park, every day, or even twice a day.
For the Chicago Botanic Garden, you designed the five-acre Regenstein Learning Campus, which features grass-covered mounds, a waterway channel, willow tunnels, nature play, and discovery gardens. How do you define nature play? And how do you design a space that will really encourage it?
The Chicago Botanic Gardens is an amazing place for families and kids. When we first started working on the project, the Botanic Garden was interested in creating a place that went beyond just visual beauty and encouraged multi-sensory engagement. They wanted to create gardens that encourage kids to touch things; places where the leaves rustle in a way that really encourages listening. Through this process of engagement in a multi-sensory garden, children learn something about natural processes.
As I’ve said, I think “nature” is a pretty loaded word. I’m not sure that anything near Chicago is really “natural” anymore. Instead, what we did was to try to capture and abstract natural systems.
Programming was also very important to the Botanic Garden. We engaged the community to create complex and layered programming for visitors of all ages; from toddlers to seniors. We also worked closely with the design team to create an integrated inside/outside classroom experience.
You have said that your design for the campus also encouraged “inquiry-focused learning.” Can you explain what that is? And why it was important to encourage?
I’ve been interested in this since the beginning of my practice. How do we teach kids through hands-on learning?
We work with kids to understand how we can make playgrounds and landscapes that move away from the homogeneity of off-the-shelf playground equipment, and encourage hands-on learning- this encourages kids to ask questions.
We’re interested in etching deep memories. I’m very opportunistic about creating these places for children-especially in the city — you have to be. We work with families and try to find these moments — in pocket parks or pop up parks.
I am not necessarily concerned about kids and their interaction or lack of interaction with the natural world, but more with the kind of digital and analog worlds we’re making for them. For example, the homogeneity of playgrounds is a real issue. You can go to Omaha or Boston and see the same play equipment. The games they play have answers already defined by some adult somewhere. Even with Legos. When I was a kid, you would spill out like a whole bunch of Legos and then create your own world. Now you know you’re making a boat at the end. And kids love it. I know they do, but I really feel, as a landscape architect, that we need to create places that highlight open ended experiences, places that encourage children to be inquisitive and creative.
Having said that, all we can do as landscape architects is to strive to create environments that engender inquiry. “Imagination” should be a verb, right?
Maybe the answer is that we should try to create landscapes that are more open-ended, that allow for the imagination to thrive for children and adults. Adults need to play as well; they need to be able to find different interpretations in the landscapes we create.
You said the land forms you designed applied the “concept of the dignity of risk,” which is such an interesting phrase. Can you explain what you mean? And why is it important to incorporate that into designed nature play areas?
Too much of our built environment is designed from a place of fear. I understand there are concerns with litigation, but this is an idea that our client emphasized at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
We discussed different ways of bringing kids up to various elevations as a way of encouraging discovery play– we studied tree houses and land forms which would allow kids to move up and down and run around.
The only constraint the Botanic Garden had was that the landscape had to be accessible to all kids. In all of our work, we’re trying to create landscapes that allow for kids to understand the range of what their body can do but also challenge them to discover new things.
You brought nature play indoors, too, at the Crown Sky Garden at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. You transformed 11,000 square feet space on their 11th floor into an interactive engaging healing garden for ailing and recovering children and their families. The space is designed to offer access to light and plants, reduce stress and boost physical activity, while offering a safe space for children with compromised immune systems. How did you design the space to protect patients’ immune systems?
We met with families, caregivers, and patients for days and just tried to understand what was important to them. The difference between this garden and some of the other healing gardens we’ve designed is that this was the only garden they had. Within this singular garden, we had to pack in a lot of aspiration and hope.
Working on these healthcare projects, I’ve learned to be a better listener. I remember that as we were working through this project, President Obama talked about the empathy deficit. I think as a landscape architect I always strive to be more empathetic and really hear people’s stories — and learn how that can help me better understand their aspirations and needs.
We had to make a decision while we were working on this project, as all these requirements emerged. Each time we said — “Well, we want water. We want to hear the sound of trickling water” — they would present evidence that if we did that, a certain population at the hospital could contract Legionnaires’ disease. We decided we wanted a garden that was accessible to everybody.
When I interview patients, I’ll go to their bedside and meet them. It’s the most fragile patients, especially in pediatric hospitals, who need these gardens the most. So, the last thing we wanted is a sign that said, “patients with these kinds of immune deficiencies are not allowed in the garden.”
We had to put aside our preconceived notions of what healing gardens are and really start to abstract nature in order to create this indoor experience for these families and patients.
At the Crown Sky Garden, it was the client who actually saw in us the possibility of merging our arts background and our ability to creatively innovate with materials with our interest with kids. We learned we had a way of transforming the landscape that’s artistic, but also compassionate.
With ubiquitous technology increasingly winning the competition for attention, how does nature play need to evolve, or perhaps co-evolve with technology? Do landscapes need to be designed to be resilient to technological or cultural change?
Kids find their own hybrid definition of digital and analog play. They’re able to easily text friends in the car while playing some video game and then go into the park and put the phone in their pocket and run around and climb a tree. I don’t think one necessarily precludes the other.
We need green spaces that are more accessible, but what’s more important today than ever before is creating something compelling in a park that will draw kids there. I have yet to see technology in the landscape advanced enough to compete with technology a teen has in their phone.
However, merging technologies into the landscape itself so that our landscapes become a large video game is something I don’t buy. Our technology is just not advanced enough. Kids are incredibly smart. They’ll look at that and say, “Well, that’s lame,” you know?
Throughout our design process at the Crown Sky Garden, we worked closely with different constituents. We worked with families and patients and brought two options. We brought an option that used more natural materials, and then we brought in a design that had more innovative materials — materials people hadn’t seen before — more contemporary materials built in innovative ways. I’d say 99-percent of kids were drawn to those. They said, “Cool, that’s amazing. I’ve never seen that before.”
Innovative materials draw kids. They ask a lot of questions: “What is this? How is it made?” They really wanted something that was more open-ended and unique — something that was beautiful, interesting, strange, and vibrant. Maybe there is something to this.
Lastly, you’re known for your truly-innovative explorations with materials. For example, you’ve created wave forms out of stone for the Alexander Art Plaza in West Palm Beach. And you have sculpted metal in many of your projects. You seem to enjoy transforming the properties of materials. Nothing appears static. What is your creative process for approaching materials?
Like kids these days, we approach the process in a hybrid fashion. We use both analog and digital tools. Personally, I love technology. It’s really transformed the kind of landscapes we can make. It’s allowed us to inhabit our landscapes in ways that I could never do when I started my practice. I love being able to walk through the landscapes we make in Rhino.
But then I’m also a little suspicious of those beautiful but singular perspectives that have emerged from these rendering technologies; that’s not how our perception works. In one minute, our eye can see 3,000 different perspectives. In singular perspectives, we tend to pick the hero shot and neglect the shots that don’t look at great. For us, we use walk-throughs to say, “well, this spot doesn’t look so great. Let’s try to work on it further.” The fluidity and kinetic qualities that you talked about in some of our work comes from this technology.
We’ve been talking about community engagement and being empathetic. For us an empathetic community allows for us to find new ways of designing. it just helps make our work richer.
And meeting with people also builds trust. It builds trust between us and our client groups. Our clients often have very high expectations — they are patients in a hospital, developers who are building very high-end developments, etc. Through our process, they enter a shared design space with us; one that is a collective experience that hopefully yields a unique landscape in the end.
Young Landscape Architect Works to Shape the Future– San Diego Downtown News, 11/3/17
“Growing up in Tempe, Arizona, Magnusson was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, and had opportunities to explore several of his commercial, institutional and residential projects.”
Michael Maltzan Architecture to Expand ArtCenter College of Design– The Architect’s Newspaper, 11/3/17
“ArtCenter College of Design has unveiled renderings of a new, two-phase master plan created by Michael Maltzan Architecture that aims to reposition the college as an expansive, urban campus connected by pedestrianized open spaces, new housing, and student amenities.”
Lines Are Drawn Over Design for a National World War I Memorial – The New York Times, 11/8/17
“When it was built in 1981 as part of an architectural revival of Pennsylvania Avenue, Pershing Park was a downtown oasis of tree line and water fountain steps from the White House. In the years since, the park has fallen into disrepair and has become a haven for homeless people and pigeons.”
Rarely have I worked on a project that I feel is quite as timely and potentially impactful as the Beach 41st Street Garden. With images of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean fresh in our minds, this story of how nature has helped one Queens, New York, community heal following Hurricane Sandy is incredibly relevant.
When we finished shooting this past spring, it was months before the name Harvey had been uttered on a weather forecast. But by the time September had arrived, and with it a new wave of destructive storms, we at TKF felt a renewed sense of urgency to shine a light on what we had learned through our work in Queens post-Sandy.
When Sandy’s storm surge engulfed the Rockaways, the devastation was intense. You get a visceral sense of what the residents of Beach 41st Street, a New York City housing residence, lived through in the voice of Celeste Grimes, one of the resident gardeners we interviewed for the film. She described it in apocalyptic terms.
In 2014, TKF chose the Beach 41 Street garden as a site to receive one of only six grants awarded to clusters of cross-disciplinary research teams to study how healing green spaces help individuals and communities recover following various kinds of trauma.
The team that applied for funding on behalf of the Beach 41 Street project included social scientists Lindsay Campbell and Erika Svendsen of the US Forest Service; Keith Tidball, Director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Disaster Education Network at Cornell University, Craig Desmond of Ecotone Building, and landscape architect Victoria Marshall, ASLA.
The team collaborated on a plan that would enable residents to revive the gardens and space; a healing exercise intended to meet what researchers understand is a desire innate in people to connect with nature, particularly in times of deep distress and trauma caused by nature.
For years now, social scientists, civic ecologists, horticultural therapists — among others — have been gathering evidence of the innate connection between people and nature, terming it biophilia. Expanding on that concept, Keith Tidball originated the term “urgent biophilia” to describe the intense need that arises post-disaster to connect with nature.
What the research team saw happening at the Beach 41st Street garden — between the gardeners and community and green space — was a living enactment of urgent biophilia. As they worked to restore the gardens, they were at the same time restoring themselves.
What we often miss in the media is the full scope of the damage that remains in the aftermath of the immediate aftermath of a storm. We know that recovery extends far beyond reconstruction and restoration.
But if our communities are to heal fully following natural disasters like Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria — and the countless future storms that are sure to arise in the coming weeks, months and years, we can’t ignore our green infrastructures. They are, without a doubt, essential to our well-being.
This guest post is by film maker Alden E. Stoner, who is also a board member of the nonprofit TKF Foundation.
After three years of flat carbon dioxide emissions, the burning of fossil fuels is expected to reach a record high in 2017, increasing global CO2 emissions by 2 percent to 41 billion tons. According to the Global Carbon Project, which published its findings in three scientific journals, the increase is driven in part by rising coal use in China. The report authors note, however, that there are uncertainties in the data, and actual growth figure could be anywhere from 0.8 to 3 percent.
To keep the global carbon dioxide ppm levels below 450, which corresponds to a 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature increase, countries party to the Paris climate accord agreed to reach peak emissions by 2020 — with China and India given another decade — and then decline to zero emissions by the end of the century.
The Guardian writes: “whether the anticipated increase in CO2 emissions in 2017 is just a blip that is followed by a falling trend, or is the start of a worrying upward trend, remains to be seen.”
China’s emissions, which account for nearly a third of the total, are estimated to rise this year by 3.5 percent, as local governments invested in construction and infrastructure projects to boost economic growth.
On Chinese emissions, Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner, told The Wire: “This year many local governments reverted to the old playbook of using infrastructure and construction projects to create demand and prop up local economies. In many regions that has meant rolling back on the restructuring of the economy and an uptick in smokestack industry output.”
U.S. emissions are down just 0.4 percent, a fall from an average reduction of 1.2 percent over the past decade. The New York Times writes: “Much of the fall in American emissions has come as increasing supplies of natural gas, wind and solar power have driven hundreds of coal plants into retirement. But emissions from sectors like transportation and buildings remain stubbornly high, and with the Trump administration dismantling domestic climate policies, it is unclear how far the country’s emissions will continue to fall in the coming years.”
And EU emissions reductions in 2017 — just 0.2 percent — are significantly lower than the 2.2 percent decline seen over the past decade. This is especially worrying as Europe bills itself as a climate leader.
There are some positive trends though: India’s emissions grew just 2 percent, down from the 6 percent average seen over the past decade. In total, The New York Times reports, “at least 21 countries have managed to cut their emissions significantly while growing their economies over the past decade, including the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden. These countries have steadily transitioned away from energy-intensive industries — or have outsourced manufacturing to countries like China — while increasing investments in efficiency and cleaner energy.”
The signatories of the Paris climate accord are now meeting in Bonn, Germany, to review and hopefully ratchet up the voluntary commitments each country makes to reduce their carbon emissions. Causing protests, the Trump administration hosted a panel promoting coal and nuclear power, which included a delegation of fossil fuel executives. Former Vice President Al Gore and other Democratic senators and governors also staged an “anti-Trump revolt” at the conference, arguing the federal government doesn’t represent all of the U.S., and many cities and states are still aiming to achieve the U.S.’s prior commitments made under Obama.
Meanwhile, Global Carbon Project lead researcher Corinne Le Quéré, a professor at the University of East Anglia, told Wired more countries must follow Britain’s lead if the world is going to reach zero emissions between 2050 and 2100. To do so, they need to enact tough legislation that requires reductions: “The world needs to follow by the UK’s example. The Climate Change Act commits us to reducing our CO2 emissions by 80 per cent of what they were in 1990. If every nation had one of those, by 2050 we will be well on the way to a low carbon economy globally.”
Five years ago, New York City began the long task of recovering and rebuilding in the wake of Sandy, one of the worst storms in the U.S. history in terms of physical devastation and loss of life. According to the National Weather Service, the cyclone generated a “worst case scenario for storm surge for coastal regions” in New York and its neighboring states. Today, as severe storms correlated with climate change escalate nationwide, is the city better prepared for the next mega storm? The answer is yes and no.
More nimble than the federal government, New York has taken a tactical, diversified approach to solutions that has some advantages. The NYC Panel on Climate Change 2015 triggered new thinking about human health risks and vulnerable populations and also built awareness that flood risk reduction must account for stormwater in the future.
OneNYC, an on-going mayoral initiative, seeks to strengthen community-based organizations to prepare and respond to disasters.
And the Department of City Planning (DCP) has recognized that the city’s zoning codes are ossified, opening significant opportunities for designers to produce a more resilient urban realm.
However, with the exception of Build It Back projects, no federally-funded resilience program has been implemented, leaving New York area residents virtually as vulnerable as, and certainly more frustrated than they were immediately after the storm.
More local agencies need to move the needle towards better waterfront planning and design by addressing ecological system benefits and increasing awareness of neighborhood needs. And the city needs to take steps to curb the root causes of climate change in the absence of federal leadership. If nothing else, the many resilient design lessons learned from Sandy have revealed the need for widespread change at the federal, local, and community levels.
At the federal level, most resilience implementation funding is based on stringent Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requirements, including the reconstruction of a damaged or destroyed property in the same location and elevation and using the same materials. The National Flood Insurance Program requires that you rebuild on affected land even if it is repeatedly flooded. Low-lying areas demonstrate that these approaches are no longer fiscally responsible. Relocation must be considered.
A post-Sandy design team, including Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA), McLaren Engineering Group, Garrison Architects, LTL Architects, Sage & Coombe Architects, and several city agencies, worked to address beachfront restoration location concerns in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens by providing modular, elevated lifeguard stations and comfort stations on their own “islands” to recoup area beaches. The team employed integrated wave attenuation and topographic change along with shoreline plantings to mitigate future storms.
Locally, slow decision-making on FEMA-certified projects by operationally-strapped city agencies is being exacerbated by federal and local flood protection data variances. Additionally, FEMA’s maps do not adequately account for sea level rise and rapid rain accumulation, and it is politically challenging to change National Flood Insurance Program maps. Federal agencies should consider local conditions and seek to provide broader solutions on a local basis.
New York realizes that resilience requires a regional response, but action often succumbs to inertia in the face of budget shortfalls and cost uncertainty due to natural and physical conditions related to soils; contamination; utilities relocations; and stormwater collection, storage tanks, and pumps; and other considerations.
Many touched by Rebuild by Design planning and design efforts now feel they are not getting promised ecosystem services and broader community benefits and remain concerned about aging infrastructure, basement and street flooding, contamination, water quality, zoning, and related issues.
Communities are often confused by projects that purport to offer “protection” versus “flood risk reduction.” The elevation of these measures seems guided more by available construction dollars than by intelligent, regional strategies.
In partnership with Civitas, MNLA developed a visionary plan to support growing sentiment that the East River waterfront can serve as a major recreational and environmental resource for East Harlem, the Upper East Side, and all of New York City. We researched and analyzed conditions from 60th Street to 125th streets and conducted in-depth community and stakeholder outreach.
The result is a plan that identifies short, medium, and long-term opportunities that combine strategies to protect neighborhoods from storm surge, improve water quality, create littoral habitat, and expand waterfront recreation. This multi-faceted design approach is an example of feasible design solutions that can restore resilience to a critical link along Manhattan’s waterfront.
The key post-Sandy takeaway is that federally-promulgated resilience measures can have negative impacts on communities.
Instead, every dollar must be directed towards projects that provide multiple benefits that fuel future storm resilience.
As designers, we can enhance results through inclusive and comprehensive communications with all of our constituencies during the design process, engaging a spectrum of urban challenges, and proposing multi-faceted solutions for our clients.
This guest post is by Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) and practicing landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. Nielsen is also a professor of urban design and landscape architecture at Pratt Institute in both the graduate and undergraduate schools of architecture and serves as president of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.
In your book Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Design Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces, co-authored with Naomi Sachs, ASLA, you argue we’re returning to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, who understood the healing power of nature and mind-body connection. Why has it taken so long to rediscover these essential understandings?
While the understanding was not entirely lost, the medical world needed proof. They were not interested in aesthetic arguments that gardens are “nice” and people appreciate “green views.” Those didn’t cut it.
The whole start of the healing gardens and therapeutic landscapes movements was Roger Ulrich’s famous study, The View from the Window, published in 1984 in the prestigious magazine Science. With access to medical records of people recovering from gall bladder surgery – some with a view to trees, some who could only see a brick wall – data showed that those with a view to trees called the nurse less often, asked for fewer high-dose pain killers, and went home a little sooner than those who viewed a wall. This study offered proof of the benefits of nature, using empirical data the medical world could understand and appreciate. Healthcare facilities took note and said, essentially: “Oh, I see. Trees outside windows and gardens around a hospital are not just cosmetic niceties, they can also affect the bottom line!”
There’s now an understanding that access to nature, sunlight, fresh air, and interactions with nature can reduce healthcare costs and patient recovery times. What has driven the explosive growth in therapeutic landscapes in hospitals and other care facilities? Has it been the financial benefits? Or are there other reasons?
There are certainly studies now that show if people have certain conditions and then have access to nature, they may call for fewer pain killers. That’s certainly significant. Studies of Alzheimer’s facilities where residents have access to a garden have shown that there is less need to prescribe drugs to reduce agitation or deal with insomnia.
Yes, the financial benefits have been important in encouraging the growth of therapeutic landscapes. But marketing is also important. It would be rare to find a senior retirement facility or hospice where a garden is not an attractive element, appealing to family members or to prospective staff.
Many hospitals are now providing gardens and that is good. However, in their marketing, some use the term “healing garden” as a buzz word. Sadly, in some cases I see in the trade magazines, there’s a photo of a chaise lounge on a roof with two potted plants, and it’s labeled a “ healing garden.” Some of us in the field are beginning to say perhaps there’s a need for a certification of healing gardens, although, just how that would work is very complicated.
There’s also been important recent research on the significance of access to outdoor space for the staff. Hospital staff work long shifts often under very stressful circumstances. Here’s a shocking number: more than a quarter of a million avoidable deaths occur in U.S. hospitals every year due to medical errors. This is just a speculative question, but could access to nature for hospital staff on their break times result in lowering stress and result in fewer medical errors? I doubt this could ever be proved as there are too many variables. But there is research where staff are saying, “Oh, yes, we want to have access to gardens.”
Hospital staff typically have window-less break rooms with no outdoor access. Also, did you know that the average lunch break for a nurse in an American hospital is just 38 minutes? So, even if there is a garden, and it’s at a distance, they’re not going to go there because they don’t have time. A trend now at hospitals who are aware of this is to put smaller gardens close to break rooms, so that staff can at least get outside for 10 or 15 minutes. That’s very important. Research has shown that is long enough for a significant reduction in levels of stress.
What are the key elements of a well-designed therapeutic landscape? What separates a great one from an OK one? Can you provide a few examples?
Oh – where to begin! It’s not rocket science, and some might argue its not vastly different from just a beautiful, well-designed garden. But there are many elements that are critical and are over-looked by even the most experienced landscape architects. First, it needs to be predominantly green; I would say about 70 percent green 30 percent hardscape. If it flips the other way, you’ve got a plaza; you don’t have a garden. The garden needs to be green, lush, and have all-season vegetation to the extent that it’s possible, depending on the location. It needs to be colorful and appeal to all the senses – smell, sound, touch, even taste – not just the visual.
The garden should serve the most vulnerable users. So, if this is, say, an acute care hospital, the most vulnerable users might be someone pulling an I.V. pole or using crutches. Pathway surfaces, non-glare elements, universal design – all are critical. A user may be someone who’s so weak they can only walk from the entry to the first bench. A person who is frail needs upright seating with arms and a back to help them get up – no slumped seating in the ubiquitous Adirondack chair!
A successful garden needs to be easily accessible and visible from a well-used interior space – foyer or waiting area in a hospital, day room or dining area in a senior facility. There should be a hierarchy of pathways for people to exercise who have varying degrees of energy. There must be adequate shade in an entry patio or under trees or a shade structure — an obvious thing but often overlooked. A lot of people are on medications — chemo, HIV-AID medication, psychiatric drugs — where they have to stay out of the sun. If there’s no shade, people aren’t going to go out there. We are seeing more and more patient-specific gardens – for those with cancer, PTSD, dementia, mental health problems, children with disabilities. In those cases it is critical that the designer works with the clinical staff and the maintenance staff in a participatory process.
So what separates a great one from a merely decent one? If the garden just had some greenery, paths, and a few benches, it wouldn’t be really therapeutic. Here are a few very good examples, in no particular order:
The Olson Family Garden at St. Louis Children’s Hospital is an 8,000-square-foot roof garden on the eighth floor. It has lush plantings, fairly large trees, and winding paths where children love to run, disappear, and appear again. There are five different water features. It has elements that intrigue children without turning it into a playground: stepping stones across water, telescopes so you can look out over St. Louis, cubby windows, a kaleidoscope, a sundial. It also appeals to adults and care givers with many semi-private places and a variety of moveable seating. It’s used by everybody and is well publicized within the hospital. The garden was designed by Herb Schaal, FASLA, with AECOM. It cost $1.9 million and was paid for by a local philanthropic family, who also gave an endowment for maintenance, so it always looks beautiful.
Another great example is the garden of the Oregon Burn Unit in Portland, Oregon, designed by landscape architect Brian Bainnson, ASLA, Quatrefoil. The reason this one works so well is Bainnson worked closely with the clinical staff at the Burn Unit to find out what patients and staff would need outdoors. He incorporated lush, beautiful, all-season planting.
A third example is the Living Garden at The Family Life Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an Alzheimer’s care center designed by landscape architect Martha Tyson, ASLA, who understood the literature on Alzheimer’s and dementia. She worked with the staff. The garden completely recognizes the main issue of these patients, which is lack of spatial cognition. I has a simple figure-eight path with destination points, so patients can’t get lost. There’s one exit and entry to the garden. No plants are toxic.
In Japan and South Korea, there are efforts to expand the use of forest bathing to improve health and well-being and also to fight addiction to new technologies. South Korea is creating a network of national forest healing centers. What do you see as the value of forest bathing? What will it take for this practice to take off in the U.S.?
The evidence from research in Japan is that breathing the air in these forests, particularly those of Hinoki cypress, lowers stress levels, blood pressure, and pulse rates. I think it has definite value, but we also know that walking in any kind of forest or non-urban green area has positive effects on health.
We’re really at a stage of infancy in this work in the U.S., but I do see a lot of media attention.
It’s funny, but the U.S. is often at the forefront with technological innovations, but rarely with social innovations – at least involving nature and play environments. Forest kindergartens have been popular in Germany and Denmark for decades; they are just catching on here. Adventure playgrounds have been around in western Europe since the 1940s; there have never been more than two or three in the U.S. (one is in Berkeley!). The Netherlands spearheaded the notion of the woonerf , or a street shared equally by vehicles and pedestrians; the idea spread across the developed world. But hardly at all in this country, largely, I would guess, because of resistance from transportation engineers.
However, in the realm of healing gardens in healthcare, the U.S. is at the forefront. It’s sad to see that in my own country of origin – Britain – famous for its gardens, those within hospitals are often poor or non-existent.
In a recent study, the Nature Conservancy estimates that, despite all the high-profile tree-planting campaigns, Americans city currently lose around 4 million trees a year. But just planting more trees in cities could reduce healthcare costs by decreasing the impact of air pollution, namely ozone and particulate matter. Other studies have found correlations between lifespan, sense of well-being, and proximity to trees. Unfortunately, however, even most arborists aren’t familiar with many of the health benefits of trees. Why aren’t the health benefits more widely understood?
Yes – there is a lot of valid research linking trees and health. Like so much material in this field of health and design, the studies produced in academic or semi-academic journals don’t filter out to people in practice. This is why it isn’t well-understood by people out in the field running tree planting programs in cities. I would not expect the people pruning trees in the street to know this. But the people in charge of trees for the city should.
There just needs to be more coverage of this information transferred from academic writing into more popular writing and hence the need for journalists and new messengers rather than new messages.
Some innovative doctors are now prescribing time in the park for a variety of conditions, testing to see if exposure to nature or a particular exercise in nature helps. What will it take for the mainstream medical profession to buy into this approach? What will it take for parks to be considered an essential part of our healthcare system by healthcare providers and insurers?
I see more and more references to the idea of providing prescriptions for people to go to parks. I believe in Washington, D.C. doctors can be provided with a list of available parks, so they can give those to their patients. For it to catch on, it will take a while, as with forest bathing and these other innovative things. It’s going to be some time before there’s research to show to the medical profession — proof that prescribing time in the park for someone with condition X improves that condition. But parks and their links to health have long been part of the landscape architecture profession going back to Olmsted.
Some hospitals being built or rebuilt are not only putting therapeutic gardens within the hospital confines but also putting a park or garden at the entry that is open to the general public. They’re providing green space for the city as a whole within their site.
Some examples include University Hospitals’ Schneider Healing Garden, Cleveland, Ohio; and Good Samaritan Medical Center’s Stenzel Healing Garden in Portland, Oregon.
Some re-built hospitals are specifically orienting patient rooms towards an adjacent park. These include The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, and Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, England.
This will continue as more hospitals recognize how important access to greenery is. Providing green space within the hospital or adjacent is relatively inexpensive compared with the cost of a new MRI machine.
Lastly, to recover from your own serious illness, you immersed yourself in nature for six months in the remote Scottish island Iona and then you wrote a book about it. You said nature there mirrored your soul and had a profound healing effect. Can you talk about that experience? How can we find those magical places? And how do you know you’ve found yours?
I found mine by serendipity and intuition. I don’t think you can go out and search for such a place or know that it has certain characteristics. When you find this place, it’s probably not your home, probably somewhere you found by chance. It may be somewhere a little different, a little distant, maybe a place you go now on weekends or maybe once a year.
In the mid-80s, I went to live with my children at Findhorn, an innovative, intentional community in Scotland from the 60s that still exists and flourishes today. They own a retreat house on the island of Iona on the other side of Scotland, and, once I had been there, I knew that the island was my healing place.
After two diagnoses of cancer shortly after retirement from academia, I went on retreat and lived alone there for six months and began to write. I now go back every year and have done so for 18 consecutive years.
All I can say is, when you find such a place, it feels as though you have come home. Not home as in a house. Home as something much deeper on a spiritual, psychological level, a place that resonates with something deep inside you.
I’ve met people who’ve come to Iona for the first time and stepping ashore they find themselves in tears. For other people, it feels like they have at last come home, yet they have absolutely no familial roots with Scotland or Britain. There is no logical reason; its not an issue of logic or reason. It occurs to numbers of visitors to this island, but that doesn’t mean to say you have to go to this particular place. You might find your place through a dream, or coming by chance across a mention in a book, or some other unexpected event.
Follow your heart; it knows. No one can give you a formula.
This year, the Pacific Northwest saw an extraordinary fire season, with approximately 35 fires raging in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California by mid-September. While there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction to fires as entirely negative, wildfires are in fact a very natural part of the life cycle of forests. In addition to removing undergrowth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and new plants can grow, some plants, such as the lodgepole pine, even require fire to germinate and sprout.
What is so unusual about this year’s season is how long it has lasted: a full seven months. An unusually dry summer in a region known for rain, combined with a strong ridge high pressure that settled over the Pacific Northwest heating air and blocking storms from entering, resulted in dried-out plants and created the perfect environment for fires. In 2017, we have already spent more in national funds to combat the fires than in any other year on record, and the year isn’t yet over.
Similar to the hurricanes battering the East Coast this season, these events would be considered normal individually, if it were not for the acceleration of their natural cycles, creating increased numbers that are larger in scope. Looking at the total picture, the acceleration of these cycles is where we can see the inevitable consequences of climate change at work.
Living in Seattle, I have seen the effects of these fires firsthand. Getting up one morning this summer after having left the window open overnight, I went into my dining room and discovered that the wind had covered it entirely with ashes. Despite not being exposed to an active fire, the visible effects continued to blanket our city. And it’s not just the visible effects. Ash and smoke particulates in the air can cause breathing problems, especially for sensitive populations including those with heart and lung diseases such as asthma. Though fires may not be blazing downtown, they are have impacted the lives of everyone living in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Even if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, the fires are affecting you too, though you may not know it. The ash and smoke from the fires are not just settling on our cities, but also being lofted into the atmosphere and spreading around the globe. In this map created by NASA, you can see the ash and smoke from the Pacific Northwest fires drifting across the earth, reaching as far as Europe and Northern Africa. And due to their carbon gas emissions, the wildfires themselves contribute to accelerated climate change worldwide. While climate incidents like these can be “out of sight, out of mind” for those not actively experiencing them, the earth is a closed system: climate incidents that impact some of us, impact all of us.
So with climate change here to stay, how can we mitigate its impact to make our cities and dwellings safer? Landscape architecture can provide solutions to some of the problems posed by climate change. For example, better urban design can help reduce the sprawl at the intersection of urban and natural space, which is now in the most in danger of devastation from wildfires. For those already living at these intersections, landscape management of individual properties can help mitigate those hazards.
One such solution is to create a “defensible space” around homes at these intersections. These spaces create a barrier to impede wildfires from reaching homes, room for firefighters to maneuver if needed, and prevent fires in the home from spreading into the wild. Defensible space tactics can include reducing plant fuels around the home, incorporating fuel breaks such as gravel, and ensuring that all trees are cleared to 6-10 feet off the ground.
Careful selection of plants, too, can have an impact at these intersections. Plants that shed minimal amounts of leaves and needles provide less fuel for fires. Trees with low resin and sap content are also considered less likely to burn. Finally, native plants may be more fire-resistant or fire-adapted than non-native species. Over the last 30-40 years, we have gained an increased understanding of the environmental importance of using native plants in landscapes. But with climate change, we must also plan for a “different kind of native,” selecting plants with an eye towards the future, as current native species may not thrive in the environment as it changes.
This is where research and forward-thinking are most critical. Greater focus and funds towards researching the anticipated effects of climate change on an area allows us to plan for “new native” species that will thrive in their changing environment.
We must call on national agencies managing resources to do so with an eye towards the future, conducting research and careful planning to ensure that our natural resources and our built environments are protected. While the effects of climate change are inevitable, what matters now is finding ways to adapt to these new circumstances. You can see great work being done by the National Park Service in this area, preparing our natural treasures to survive and thrive in a world of accelerated natural cycles.
Tackling the problems posed by climate change can be overwhelming, but humans are highly adaptable species, and there are measures we can and should take to protect our future. That’s why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has convened a blue ribbon panel of multidisciplinary experts to create innovative solutions that will make our cities and inhabited spaces climate resilient. The report will provide comprehensive public-policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat climate change. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.
This post is by Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and a landscape architect with 40 years of experience.
New parks can become agents of gentrification if they are not planned with all of the community. Often, the unintended consequence of a bright, shiny new park planned with only part of the community can be a change in community identity, so parts of the existing community no longer recognize their own neighborhood. Improved park amenities can also also spur new development, higher rents, and, eventually, displacement. But “there are also projects that can break the sequence of negative outcomes,” explained Janelle Johnson, ASLA, a landscape architect with Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, at the ASLA 2017 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. “Whose change and what change — these are questions that landscape architects can help communities answer.” If done well, new parks can instead act as agents of community building, forging new connections that help break down racial and class barriers.
Bridging Communities Through a New Park in New Orleans
Landscape architect Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, explained how she helped bring together multiple communities in central city New Orleans to re-imagine Hayden Plaza, a linear park found at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
The neighborhood has evolved over the years. First settled by Jewish, Italian, and German immigrants, it became an African American community, and one of the few places African Americans could shop during the segregated 1930s, 40s, and 50s. As the immigrant shop owners who served African American patrons moved elsewhere, the stores were taken over by African Americans, who “didn’t get enough business,” and commercial activity declined.
In the 1960s civil rights movement, the neighborhood was a hub for protests. Artist Frank Hayden created an abstract sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the era when there “wasn’t community engagement.” The community had wanted a figurative sculpture, but Hayden delivered an abstract one instead. “The community wasn’t happy.” (Another figurative sculpture was later added).
Post-Hurricane Katrina, “new development came in, as black merchants lost property. A new merchant’s association made capital improvements,” such as a new jazz market, with a bar and theater, and an old school was revamped as a stall market. “They were bringing money in, but pushing the community out.” New development became a “sign of gentrification;” there was even a “Jane Jacobs walk.”
But every March, the Recreating the Emotional Ability to Live (REAL) protest march, led by a black empowerment group, works its way down through the neighborhood to the plaza, which demonstrates how this “space is still contested.” Working with the client — the merchant’s association — there was a “chance to educate and design for both those who go on the Jane Jacobs walk and those pushing for empowerment. A symbolic design would be inclusive and not take space away for the empowerment group.” The new landscape design “acknowledges the future, while honoring the past” (see image above).
Both communities — the African Americans and the new-comers — are now part of the future of the neighborhood, Jones Allen said. They came together in community planning and design charrettes held in the jazz market.
Revitalizing a Symbol of Integration in Birmingham, Alabama
Eric Tamulonis, ASLA, a partner with OLIN, explained how Birmingham, was long known as the “Pittsburgh of the south,” because of its iron ore mines in the Red Mountains, which were part of the US Steel empire. Down in the mines, African American and white miners toiled together since the late 1800s. “The mines were a magnet for African Americans given the great demand for workers.”
But back on the surface, there was “deep segregation.” A racist zoning map created red zones — or “danger zones” — the only places African Americans could live. Many of these places were actually dangerous — one was called “Dynamite Hill.” Jim Crow laws and regulations codified segregation. “There was a municipal law that African American and white children couldn’t play together.”
As de-segregation of all public schools, facilities, and transportation systems slowly became national policy in the 1950s and 60s, Birmingham’s city government fought it as much as they could. “They closed parks instead of integrating them.” While African Americans made up 40 percent of the city, they had only been given a few small parks. When those were shut down, “kids played in the streets.”
Now with a new 4.5-mile-long Red Mountain Park on land US Steel donated to the community, we are “building community in the park. It’s a bridge across the divide.” A new walking bridge called the “walk of unity” will end in a mine, where visitors can learn about the cultural history of the industry. “Noble mining structures are being restored, and there are reforestation efforts.” Throughout, there will be educational moments, including recordings of oral histories conducted with miners. Tamulonis worked on the community planning effort while at WRT, and said the Red Mountain Park Commission is “committed to equitable development.”
Birmingham is also trying to move beyond its racist park history through the creation of other inclusive public spaces. Tom Leader Studio’s Railroad Park is a “symbol of re-unity.” And a city task force has been laying the ground work for using Olmsted brothers’ 1925 equitable greenways plan, which was never implemented, as the basis for “future land use.”
Scaling up Inclusive and Equitable Park Development
Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks department head and now senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), explained how urban parks can lead to greater equity.
While the “federal government won’t do anything for urban parks” in the foreseeable future, cities are using tax increment financing, property tax increases, and business improvement districts to improve the quality of parks across all communities. In Minneapolis, which already tops the nation in TPL’s Park Score rating system, some $250 million will be invested in parks, particularly in underserved communities. “They asked themselves hard questions and are focused on areas of poverty.”
More cities also better understanding the consequences of new park development without an equitable development plan — what has been called the “High Line effect.” For example, Bozeman, Montana, a small city of 30,000 people, is now creating their first large central park on a 60-acre site. Some 8 acres around the park will be set aside for a community center and affordable housing. “This project shows we can’t just focus on parks. It’s our problem to fix equity, too.”
And the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. — which seeks to bring together the majority-white Capitol Hill neighborhood, and racially-mixed, gentrifying Lincoln Park and Hill East on the west side of the Anacostia River and majority African American Anacostia, Barry Farm, Fairlawn, and Woodland, and Fort Stanton neighborhoods on the east side of the river through one park — represents the “future of equitable park development.”
The leaders of the park and landscape architects at OLIN forged an equitable development plan with the communities along the Anacostia River, which includes a small business and workforce plan that will boost local employment in the park, and a new land trust, which is designed to insulate neighborhoods around the park from speculative real estate development.
What does it mean to be a master of the contemporary Japanese garden design? To answer this, once must consider what constitutes a Japanese garden. The first images that come to mind might be of bamboo, or perhaps coy fish, or raked patterns in gravel. Japanese gardens are more than their components, though; they are a set of principles. And because principles should be transferable, it is possible for Japanese gardens to manifest themselves in very un-Japanese ways.
As Brown notes, Japanese gardens nowadays are less microcosms of Japan than they are “Japanese-inspired microcosms of nature.” Hence the flourishing of Japanese gardens outside of Japan, to the extent that they outnumber those inside Japan.
There is of course a fraught social history of Japanese gardens in the West, one that Brown fully recognizes. Taken out of their regional and historical context beginning in the late 19th-century, Japanese gardens became curios and projections of status and sophistication (the irony being that constructing a Japanese garden can, at least now, be in questionable taste).
To suggest one has mastered the art of Japanese gardens is to therefore suggest mastery of the art’s principles, as well the ability to reapply those principles without creating, as Brown puts it, a “garish pastiche.”
Perhaps none of the designers featured in the book more deftly graft the Japanese style into the North American context than David Slawson. Born in Ohio, Slawson spent a number of years in Japan studying the art of garden design before returning to the mid-West and applying his knowledge on college campuses and residences.
In recounting the story of his time spent in Japan, Slawson speaks reverently of power: the power of the dry landscape at Daisen-in, the power of rocks “disposed in space” at Ryoanji. These gardens moved him, and his designs seek to reproduce that impact.
At the Hoeschler residence in Minnesota, Slawson evoked Lake Superior’s north shore with a formidable river of stones.
Power can overwhelm, however, and this dramatic garden left the rest of the yard feeling weak. So Slawson complemented the initial design with an equally adamant garden entrance, replete with boulders that call to mind a north shore gorge.
Shin Abe, another of the book’s featured designers, has at times demonstrated a tremendous capacity to abstract the natural world. He pushes this traditional Japanese technique to its extreme at the Education First office building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the building’s entrance, slabs of stone suggesting frozen waves emerge from “dry” pools, geometric patterns filled with blackish aggregate and gravel. Low-sitting granite rectangles serve as benches, and the whole design gives the sense of water represented through rock.
Several of the book’s featured designers evoke Japanese landscape painting in their work. Marc Peter Keane’s Tiger Glen Garden, which refers to a work titled The Three Laughers of Tiger Ravine, possesses what Brown describes as a “gentle intensity.” A miniature stone ravine, patterned like a roman road, winds through the tiny courtyard garden, a rocky gash amidst moss and an elegantly-branching Tanyosho pine.
For all the talk of adapting the Japanese style to North America, many of the book’s gardens are still loaded with features some might consider cliché: Sand raked just so, a smattering of Buddhist paraphernalia, the unmistakable preference for Ponderosa pine. And then there are the lanterns. Modest, often camouflaged, they beg not to be considered kitsch.
And maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe there is something we still don’t understand about our attraction to Japanese-style gardens, and how we can’t seem to adopt the principles without indulging in a bit of the exoticism that Japanese culture represents to the West. And maybe a little indulgence is good now and then.