Maximizing the Potential of Drones

Phantom drone / Wikipedia

Drones can do much more than take pretty aerial pictures. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can be used to analyze site conditions over time, offering a deeper understanding of change. Drones can also play a role in actually planning and designing landscapes.

In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia, Christopher Sherwin, ASLA, Surface Design; Brett Milligan, assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental design at University of California at Davis, Luke Hegeman, ASLA, MODUS Collective; and Emily Schlickman, ASLA, SWA Group explained how they are maximizing the potential of drones to understand climate and ecological change and design and evaluate projects.

Sherwin provided a brief overview of drones. In the early 1900s, the inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned a “wireless unmanned aerial system.” In the 1940s, a “crude unmanned drone” was developed. Later in the 1960s, radio-controlled planes became a favorite of hobbyists around the globe. In 1995, the US military unleashed the missile-armed predator drone — a true “leap in technology.” In 2006, the US government devised the first flight guidelines for drone pilots, known as Rule 107. And then a year later, the launch of the iPhone led to the birth of an app-guided drone. And in 2013, the Phantom One drone, featuring sensors linked to GoPro cameras, was released.

To test one of the latest drones with cameras and sensors, Sherwin found a spot at Lundy Lake, just south of Lake Tahoe in California. Sherwin wanted to use the drone to better understand how the tree canopy was shifting with climate change. The drone covered the same flight path a number of times, providing high-quality footage at a 1-meter resolution, which is better than aerial satellites. Sherwin mapped a patch of landscape, including individual tree species and the under story, creating a rich, data-dense photogrammetry. And over time, the photogrammetry was able to show “where change was occurring.”

That is until we was arrested for trespassing and his drone was confiscated. Sherwin had used an app called AVMap, which is supposed to let drone pilots know where it is legal to fly. But the data hadn’t been updated. The result: “my research is on hold. No word yet on a permit.” But he was able to get his drone back. That was the first tip in the session: don’t get arrested.

Brett Milligan, one of the founders of the Dredge Research Collaborative, is using drones to aid the ecological restoration of dunes in the Antioch shoreline, along the San Joaquin River in California. Plants are being grown in the dunes to prevent further erosion. He used drones to monitor the rate of re-colonization by the vegetation, creating a point-cloud or photogrammetry model. He put in a set of “ground control points” — stakes tied with a bright orange material in the dunes — that serve as static reference points in a changing dune landscape. Once he got the video data he was hoping for, he and his students used that to “model results with physical CNC models in wind tunnels,” so as to try to create a more accurate model for how wind impacts dune restoration. Milligan said drones “add new value to field work. The drone draws you in; it doesn’t distance you.”

Brett Milligan using a drone / UC Davis

For Luke Hegeman, a landscape architect and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified UAV pilot, drones are a “design tool.”

Model created with drone footage / MODUS Collaborative

At Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), he created a project called “mixed reality city,” with his own self-built drone. Mixed media goes beyond augmented reality as it includes a true mixing of different realities; the technology enables a real-time relationship between real-world and designed layers. (In a session last year, a number of landscape architects and technologists foresaw this as the future of design).

Hegeman said drones can help create powerful mixed media experiences that help “visualize potential future outcomes.” He envisioned combining drone video feeds with visualized data from network of sensors buried in the ground. Running simulations, vast landscapes could be designed with real-time information.

And Emily Schlickman with SWA Group explained how her firm’s XL Research and Innovation Lab uses drones for a variety of purposes. UAVs have been used to gather information and document conditions before planning and design process have begun. Drones were also used to survey site damage to Buffalo Bayou park in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which dumped 40 inches of rain in four days. In that case, the drone was crucial, because surveying the site, which was largely inaccessible after the floods, would have been unsafe. And drones have been used by SWA to monitor construction progress.

As part of a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) case study on Hunters Point South park in Queens, New York, conducted with Pennsylvania State University, SWA is analyzing the performance of this resilient waterfront park. Footage from drones taken throughout the day is being stitched together into a “video fly through” that shows “occupation and usage patterns.”

Hunters Point South park / Jonnu Singleton, SWA Group

Algorithms programming machine learning systems track the movement of people through the site. And heat maps show where people congregate throughout the day. “It shows a taste of what this technology is capable of.”

ASLA 2019 Diversity Summit Call for Letters of Interest

ASLA 2018 Diversity Summit / EPNAC

In 2019, ASLA will host its Diversity Summit on May 17 to 19 at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington D.C.

The Summit welcomes landscape architects from diverse backgrounds to engage in critical, thoughtful, and challenging dialogues to inform how the Society and its members can create an inclusive and equitable community of landscape architecture professionals.

ASLA will invite selected participants to think in deeper and more complex ways about diversity and inclusion in the profession. Attendees will explore strategies for ASLA to advance its diversity and inclusion efforts while tackling some of the most pressing issues facing diverse communities throughout the Summit.

Eligibility and Deadline

If you are a landscape architecture professional of color in the United States with at least two years of professional experience and are interested in applying, please complete the 2019 ASLA Diversity Summer Call for Letters of Interest by Friday, January 18, 2019. We will notify selected participants in early February. ASLA will pay primary transportation, two nights lodging for all participants, and provide breakfast and lunch on the summit days.

Please submit the following:

The 2019 ASLA Diversity Summer Call for Letters of Interest requires the following documentation:

  • Resume (two pages maximum – PDF format to be uploaded)
  • One (1) Letter of Recommendation (PDF format to be uploaded). The letter should specifically address your merit as a landscape architecture professional and interest to address diversity in the field.
  • Letter of Interest (750-word maximum – PDF format to be uploaded).

Prior to writing your letter of interest, review the 2018 Diversity Summit Report and the 2018 Diversity Summit Summary, and include answers to the following questions:

  • How will your experience and values be beneficial to ASLA’s Diversity Summit?
  • What is your vision for ASLA’s career discovery and diversity program in the coming years?
  • What do you hope to get out of participation?

Submit your application.

For questions, please email discover@asla.org.

About the ASLA Diversity Summit

In 2013, ASLA convened its first Diversity Summit with the goal of developing a deeper understanding of why landscape architecture is failing to attract a more diverse profile. Each summit has brought together a group of experienced and emerging landscape architects who identify as African American or Latinx to develop strategies that address diversity issues in the field.

In 2017, the Diversity SuperSummit convened the largest group of attendees to date. Participants evaluated goals from previous summits, developed focus areas for four key diversity initiatives to guide ASLA’s work plan in the coming year, and discussed the future of the Diversity Summit. Focus items and initiatives will continue to be established and evaluated as ASLA plans future Summits. The following includes links to resources, news and articles, and Summit reports published since the first Diversity Summit convened in 2013.

In 2018, ASLA invited five professionals from the Diversity SuperSummit and nine new participants from the Call for Letters of Interest to add valuable input to discussions and resource development. Attendees reviewed benchmarks prioritized from the 2017 Diversity SuperSummit, offered suggestions for developing resources that can assist implementing diversity and inclusion practices into business strategies and reaching out to the youth and communities.

This post is by Lisa Jennings, ASLA Career Discovery & Diversity Manager.

ASLA Opens 2019 Professional and Student Awards Call for Entries

ASLA 2019 Professional Awards Call for Entries
ASLA 2019 Student Awards Call for Entries

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is now accepting entries for its 2019 Professional and Student Awards, the world’s most prestigious juried landscape architecture competition.

Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe, while the ASLA Student Awards give us a glimpse into the future of the profession.

Award recipients receive featured coverage in Landscape Architecture Magazine, the magazine of ASLA, and in many other design and construction industry and general interest media. ASLA will honor the award recipients, their clients, and advisors at the awards presentation ceremony during the 2019 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, November 15-18.

The prestige of the ASLA awards programs relies on the high-caliber juries that convene each year to review submissions.

Members of the 2019 professional awards jury are:

  • Andrea Cochran, FASLA, Chair, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, San Francisco, CA
  • Henri Bava, Agence Ter, Paris, France
  • Kofi Boone, ASLA, North Carolina State University, Durham, NC
  • Gina Ford, FASLA, Agency Landscape and Planning, Cambridge, MA
  • Deb Guenther, FASLA, Mithun, Seattle, WA
  • John King, Honorary ASLA, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, CA
  • Pam Linn, FASLA, Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee, WI
  • John Vinci, Vinci Hamp Architects, Chicago, IL
  • Keith Wagner, FASLA, Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture, Burlington, VT

Both Stephanie A. Rolley, FASLA, Kansas State University, on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Gale Newman, ASLA Texas A&M University, on behalf of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) will join the jury for the selection of the Research Category.

Members of the 2019 student awards jury are:

  • Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, Chair, Design Jones LLC, Arlington, TX
  • Diana Fernandez, ASLA, Sasaki Associates, Upton, MA
  • David Gouverneur, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
  • Robert Gray, ASLA, Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, Kansas City, MO
  • Damian Holmes, World Landscape Architecture, Melbourne, Australia
  • Kendra Hyson, Associate ASLA, The Neighborhood Design Center, Washington, DC
  • Maki Kawaguchi, Gehl, New York, NY
  • Signe Nielsen, FASLA, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, P.C., New York, NY
  • Daniel Tal, ASLA, Ambit3D LLC, Lakewood, CO

Both the ASLA Professional and Student awards feature five categories: General Design; Residential Design; Analysis and Planning; Communications; and Research. The Professional Awards also include The Landmark Award, while the Student Awards include the Student Community Service Award and Student Collaboration categories.

Key Deadlines:

Professional awards entry fees are due by February 15, 2019. All submissions are due by 11:59 PST on March 1, 2019.

Student awards entry fees are due by May 10, 2019. All submissions are due by 11:59 PST on May 17, 2019.

To start the entry process visit—www.asla.org/2019cfe.

In need of inspiration? View the ASLA 2018 professional and student award-winning projects.

The Professional and Student Awards are a program of the ASLA Fund.

ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture Call for Presentations

San Diego Waterfront Park by Hargreaves Associates / iStockPhoto

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has released its call for presentations for the 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture, which will take place November 15-18 in San Diego. More than 6,000 landscape architects and allied professionals are expected to attend.

The meeting will feature a diverse spectrum of industry experts speaking on a wide range of subjects, from sustainable design and best practices to new materials and technologies.

More than 130 education sessions and field sessions will be presented during the meeting, providing attendees with the opportunity to earn up to 21 professional development hours under the Landscape Architecture Continuing Education System™ (LA CES™).

Many of the sessions will also qualify for continuing education credit with the Green Building Certification Institute (toward LEED AP credential maintenance), the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Certified Planners, and other allied professional organizations and state registration boards.

Education session speakers selected from this process will receive a full complimentary registration to the ASLA 2019 Conference and may also be eligible for reimbursement for one night’s hotel stay at an official ASLA hotel (an estimated $750 value).

Landscape architecture professionals wishing to present at the San Diego conference need to be active members of ASLA. Allied professionals are encouraged to both submit presentations and speak but are not required to be members of the Society. To coordinate proposals and network with potential speakers, we encourage you to use the CFP Google Group.

The deadline for education session proposals is January 23, 2018. Submit your session proposal today.

Interview with Marion Brenner on Photographing Landscape Architecture

Marion Brenner

Marion Brenner is one of the leading photographers of landscape architecture. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Landscape Architecture Magazine, Gardens Illustrated, The New York Times, and Garden Design. Books of her photographs include Private Gardens of the Bay Area, Outstanding American Gardens, The Bold Dry Garden, New Garden Design, Living Land: The Gardens of Blasen Landscape Architecture, and In and Out of Paris: Gardens of Secret Delights. Her photographs are in the collections of the Bancroft Library at University of California at Berkeley, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Berkeley Art Museum. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia.

What makes a great photograph of landscape architecture?

The challenge of photographing landscape architecture is taking a three-dimensional space and making it two dimensional. The best photographs of landscape architecture make you feel like you’re in the space.

A good photograph tells a story. I don’t think of myself as making individual photographs. It’s always interesting to me when someone remembers one photograph, because my photography is about telling the story of a project.

Walden by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture / Marion Brenner

Does taking photographs of natural landscape and works of landscape architecture require different approaches? If so, how?

I am not at all interested in taking pictures of the natural landscape. My role is taking pictures of the built environment. I’m most interested in how culture impacts the land and nature. How we want to control it; what we think of as beauty, and the political implications of a designed landscape.

I became aware of this in the 90s. I got a grant with a writer, Diana Ketchum, to photograph 18th century English-style gardens in France. They are based on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French are not particularly interested in them. Most people know about Le Nôtre’s landscapes: the classic French Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles, which symbolizes the absolute power of the king. The English-style gardens were built just before the French Revolution. They are meandering, with winding paths, and views that are meant to make people feel and think and question the absolute power of the king. They were built at a time when people were traveling to Italy to see ruins. In Northern France there were no ruins so they built their own. One of the gardens in Ermenonville is now Parc Jean Jacques Rousseau. It has grottoes and a temple on the hill with fallen pillars.

Temple on the Hill at Ermenonville, Parc Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an English-style garden in France / Marion Brenner

Today, landscape architecture is political in its relation to how we think about climate change, parks, and water use. Also, there’s the issue of parks and gentrification.

How can you capture the feel of a designed landscape, taking a work that is in 3-D and making it 2-D?

I do it in collaboration with the designers. I find that incredibly helpful as they hone my vision. I work with a medium-format digital camera that sends an image to an iPad so my clients can can react to it in real time. They can tell me, “no, no, this is what I meant.”

Is there one photograph that tells the whole story? Sometimes. But not always. I leave things out. But I also put in a lot in. One photo is just one part of the story. I need multiple photos to tell the story.

If I have a lot of time in a space I can kind of figure out the logic. But my clients have designed sight lines, they’ve thought about the space, they know the way the light works. They don’t know how to document it, generally, but they know what they want. And, so, it’s this back and forth that I find extremely exciting.

What process yields the best photos?

For me, it’s definitely working with the designer. My clients generally humor me when I go off on a tangent. They encourage me to see what I see.

I always say: “turn around.” I was taking a photograph of what I was supposed to be photographing and then I turned around and the light was coming through the trees on the hillside. That photograph ended up being the cover of Living Land, Blasen Landscape Architecture’s book. It was just a moment that captured some essence.

Meadow by Blasen Landscape Architecture / Marion Brenner

The exciting thing about photographing landscape architecture is that there are no rules. I showed a photograph of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Texas, at the field session at the ASLA Annual Meeting. There’s a pole going right down the middle of the photograph. You can see the base of the pole.

Klyde Warren Park by Office of James Burnett / Marion Brenner

Chris McGee, art director at Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM), said: “Oh, I was looking at that and saying, ‘which photograph do I like better?'” But it was one photograph. I broke the rules. I guess there are rules to break.

How do you capture seasonal change and the progression of time?

There aren’t many projects I do over time. They have to be very significant projects for my clients, because hiring me is a big expense.

I just did a private house this summer for Surface Design, which I’ve documented over time. The landscape has a big meadow that’s great to capture in different seasons, but this is a rarity.

How do you capture people inhabiting a landscape in a way that doesn’t feel staged?

You can try to use real people. But one of the problems is that when I shoot dawn or and dusk, there is nobody there. Or if people are there they walk straight through the picture, and you don’t see them. There’s not even a blur, because the exposures are so long.

I sometimes bring a whole team of people. When I photographed the San Antonio Botanical Garden that Christy Ten Eyck designed this summer, the botanical garden invited families so there were kids there. We were able to do the photographs in the right kind of light with people in it.

San Antonio Botanical Garden by Christy Ten Eyck Landscape Architecture / Marion Brenner

As Chris McGee says, “we just don’t want to see the same person in every shot.” You want people to be comfortable and look natural. I sometimes have people walk through a site in order to get movement through it. The problem with real people is they can go too fast or too slow. They can be carrying a big plastic bag, just not looking right.

What will visual landscape representation look like in 25 years? Will photography always have a place in the world of drones, virtual reality, mixed media, or some other technology that we don’t even know about?

I am not interested in using a drone, but I have been on shoots where drones have been used to great effect. I’m happy to have them, because I hate hanging out over edges where there’s parapets and stuff and you can’t really see, and you’re not getting the angle people want. Landscape architects love things from above.

Drones are not great quality, but they’re great for a certain kind of image. They’re less interesting to me, because, again, it’s flat. I’m not interested in shooting flat. I’m interested in the relationship of near and far and how you make that three dimensional space a photograph.

I may be virtual in 25 years, but I don’t think I’ll be around in 25 years. I have grandchildren and I wonder what their lives are going to be like in 25 years.

Images are ubiquitous now. We live by images. But how much time do you give to an Instagram photograph? It’s not really about the quality. It’s about: does it grab me or not? I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. I like seeing what people are doing and interesting things. The thing I hate about it is: “Well, why am I stuck home here at the computer working when you’re in Nepal on a mountaintop looking at this beautiful sunset!?”

Lastly, what is the most important advice you have for amateur photographers who want to improve their photography of landscape architecture?

Look at landscape photography you admire and try to figure out what you like about it. Imitation is a way of getting where you want to go.

Trial and error; that’s it! Keep doing it. Do it, do it, look at it. Judge it, figure out what works and what doesn’t work.

I had a wonderful mentor at one of the magazines. She wouldn’t let me go out unless the light was right. I learned a lot about light from her. My photographs are about light. The right light is generally not the middle of the day. Early or late.

Getty Museum in Los Angeles by OLIN. Light in overcast sky / Marion Brenner
Getty Museum in Los Angeles by OLIN. Light before sunset / Marion Brenner

When you’re photographing architecture, you can have full sun on a façade, and it shows the shapes. But when you’re photographing landscape, anything with texture and plants, trees, you end up getting dark pools underneath trees, even the trees themselves are broken up by dark shadows.

You’re not seeing form; you’re seeing light. The forms are light and shadow.

Kongjian Yu: To Save China’s Environment, Educate the Leaders

Letters to the Leaders of China / Terreform

Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.

Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.

He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.

He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.

In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”

He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.

He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:

  • “Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
  • Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
  • Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
  • Restore and protect wetland systems.
  • Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
  • Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
  • Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
  • Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
  • Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
  • Establish native plant nurseries.”
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Slow Down: Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.

Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.

Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.

At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu
ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”

Interview with Ignacio Bunster-Ossa: The New Geography of Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, is national practice leader for landscape architecture at AECOM. He is the author of Reconsidering Ian McHarg and with David Rouse, ASLA, Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach. In his previous work as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), Bunster-Ossa led the development of the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica, California, and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia has made great strides in its efforts to become a more sustainable city. Most recently, the city government announced it will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. The city’s green works sustainability plan, transportation plan, and city-wide vision plan lay out ambitious goals. Over the past decade, what have been Philadelphia’s major contribution to the sustainable city movement? And where does the city need to improve?

What propelled the big leap forward was the consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use green infrastructure to manage water pollution going into the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers. The agreement became the Green City, Clean Waters program, which is managed by the Philadelphia water department.

Philadelphia had a vast network of rivers, streams, and creeks, which in many cases were supplanted by underground sewers. These sewers erased the city’s hydrological foundation. Green City, Clean Waters is not quite undoing this system but introducing a new geography of green infrastructure that is not only shaping how the city ecologically functions but also how it looks. The program has produced fantastic parks and greenways. That’s a credit to the leadership: Howard Neukrug, director of watersheds and then commissioner of the water department, who instigated a lot of this; and Mami Hara, ASLA, his deputy for years, who is now the water chief in Seattle.

Fairmount Park rain gardens by Studio Bryan Hanes / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Where we still need to improve: We see projects in areas that have the land. Parks and plazas have been retrofitted or designed anew to incorporate green infrastructure. But Philadelphia is an old, pre-industrial city where streets and sidewalks are tight. The challenge is how do you green streets in South, North, and West Philadelphia? There is so little space to implement a green vision.

Green trolley station in West Philadelphia. A concrete wasteland was transformed into a plaza with colorful plantings, porous paving, shaded seating and a café. Designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates. / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

If you talk to engineers, they’ll say, “well, we can only put an underground cistern,” which works from a water quality point of view, but doesn’t provide the other benefits that green infrastructure produces: shade, biodiversity, and the like. This is the problem we need to address in the future.

As you mentioned, Philadelphia’s landmark green infrastructure plan — Green City, Clean Waters — and the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program have led to the creation of more than 850 greened acres. A greened acre absorbs up to one inch of rainfall through trees, rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs. What does the program need to accomplish next?

800 acres is less than 10 percent of the total required by the consent agreement, which is 9,300-plus greened acres. The question is: how do you implement green infrastructure in places where it’s the most difficult to implement?

Typical narrow downtown street in Philadelphia. A parklet helps absorb stormwater / Ignacio-Bunster Ossa

There’s also an issue of cost: if a greened acre costs $100,000 an acre, that is expensive. Another challenge is hiring a quality workforce who can work on green infrastructure in a way that benefits the most number of people.

Connect, the city’s first strategic transportation plan aims to make public transportation systems more integrated, equitable, and accessible. However, state funding for SEPTA, the regional railway system, is expected to fall. How can a sustainable regional transportation plan be forged among the Delaware River Valley community?

The issue is politics. The solution lies in Harrisburg; it doesn’t lie with SEPTA. Many communities in Pennsylvania don’t use or need transit because they are too spread out. These communities hold power in the allocation of funds that both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia need for transit. It’s a classic case of constituencies fighting for resources.

SEPTA has improved a lot over the years. It’s much more pleasant now to ride trains and buses. We’ve added many miles of bike lanes. And in a warehouse somewhere, there are thousands of electronic scooters ready to be rolled out. There is a new dynamic for moving around in the city.

Philadelphia bike lane / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

One of my biggest hopes is the city will dedicate streets or a whole corridor to low speeds, like 15- 20 miles an hour. If you hit a pedestrian at those speeds, they have an 80 percent chance of being unscathed; maybe a bruise, but that’s it. The city could do that along major corridors. Dedicated street are better than just bike lanes — they result in greater usage of sustainable transportation options.

Through its Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program, the city will be investing $500 million to make fair and equitable improvements in community parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, libraries across the city. What has the program accomplished so far? Are there fears new amenities could exacerbate gentrification?

The program is new so it hasn’t produced the scale of improvements that can lift up the whole city. The rebuild program has identified specific areas based on income, quality of the resource, need for the resource, and level of improvement. They’re spending the money in a prioritized way. And the $500 million is not all there. It’s being accumulated from a tax on soda, as well as from contributions from foundations. This is a long-term program that can produce results.

The issue of gentrification is very, very serious in Philadelphia. From a personal experience living in West Philadelphia, now known as University City District, I’ve been the recipient of the positive side of gentrification. But because of that, I’m acutely aware of the impacts.

I don’t think it necessarily follows that improvements will produce gentrification, in part because Philadelphia is one of the poorest cities. For large cities, the median income is one of the lowest, if not the lowest. The city is also predominately African-American, so the infusion, if you will, of white money that can produce gentrification won’t affect communities most in need of basic improvements. Perhaps long-term that could be the case. But the program isn’t prioritizing in any way, shape, or form projects that can induce re-development in a gentrifying way.

A recent study by Bloomberg found the City of Brotherly Love is sadly the third most unequal city in the U.S. behind Miami and Atlanta. Furthermore, the city jumped 17 spots in the past year, the sharpest negative move among the top ten most unequal cities. How can Philly better address the large income gap between those who live in or near Center City and those in low-income neighborhoods?

An associated consequence of the income gap is the gap in access to public resources. A research study by University City District called Just Spaces surveyed under-represented communities in the district. They want to find out: why don’t low-income people use bike lanes? Why don’t they use parks or public spaces? There are racial and economic reasons.

The report may point the way towards how you can create equity– not in terms of income, but at least in terms of access to affordable mobility and parks and recreation, which can elevate quality of life for everyone.

Philadelphia is also a hot spot for air pollution, earning an “F” grade from the American Lung Association and ranking just behind Memphis and Richmond for the country’s worst air. One in ten Philadelphians have asthma. Furthermore, asthma rates are spread unevenly, largely tracking with areas that are abnormally hot with fewer trees. This is because extreme heat combined with pollution forms dangerous levels of ozone that lead to asthmatic emergencies. How can this city address the inequity of the urban heat and air pollution issue?

Green infrastructure is a real solution — and it was embedded in the precursor to Green City, Green Waters, which was the Green Plan Philadelphia, a landmark report that Mami Hara also guided. The problem in Philadelphia is the tight streets where you can hardly fit a tree, given all the utilities. God forbid you remove a parking space. There’s a tremendous need for vegetation, particularly in South Philadelphia, where it’s very hard to find a tree in any given block.

The other component is obviously the roof landscape. In much of the city, roofscapes exceed streets in area. I would start programs that can produce green roofs, certainly blue roofs, but also change the material on the roof, so they are more reflective. You would see temperatures go down. I would do everything possible to improve the shade cover on streets as well.

Comcast Tower green roof by OLIN / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Philadelphia did a program called Green Streets that I was part of. They have a design manual for green streets, which explains how to incorporate green infrastructure every time you fix a street. Over time, the city can make a dent in the air pollution problem.

After many years as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), where you designed projects such as the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, you moved to AECOM, where you’re now national practice leader for landscape architecture. In your new position, how do you hope to move Philly in a more sustainable, equitable direction?

We have folks in Philadelphia working for the water department on the green infrastructure program. We collaborate on where the rubber hits the road: How do you take a very small area and make it green? If there’s one lesson about the Green City, Clean Waters program is we’re almost dealing at the micro-landscape scale. That’s the level at which improvements are made over time.

The other work is focused on building parks near creeks to improve the quality of the water, but also recreational trails, such as in Pennypack and Tacony Creeks, and the Schuylkill River boardwalk, which is part of one the nation’s top urban trails.

Schuylkill River boardwalk / AECOM

The city has a very robust community engagement process. Philadelphia has a neighborhood-centric social structure. It’s great to work with people at that scale to make change.

And what have you learned from your 20-plus years’ experience in Philly that you want to bring to other cities and the national level?

It’s all about the scale of the city. Compare downtown Philadelphia to downtowns in other places, compare the widths of streets. I’ve measured this: it takes me 12 steps to cross most Center City streets. That’s 2-3 seconds. It’s a highly pedestrian-friendly environment because it’s so easy to cross a street.

When I go to other places and they tell me, “oh, you need a radius of 30 feet, because you need a truck to move around the city,” I say, “No you don’t.” I can show examples of big fire trucks moving around the city in this tight environment.

If I had to say anything about Philadelphia that would lead to a better future — it’s we need to take vehicles out of Center City and dense urban areas. Uber and autonomous vehicles (AVs) create on-call circulation that can travel at very low speeds. You no longer need parking. This evolution is inevitable in American cities. Philadelphia is ready-made to lead the way.

Call for Nominations for ASLA 2019 Honors

ASLA 2018 Honors awards ceremony, Philadelphia / EPNAC

Nominations for the 2019 ASLA Honors are now open. These prestigious awards recognize individuals and organizations for their lifetime achievements and notable contributions to the profession of landscape architecture.

Honors nomination categories include:

Nominations are also open for ASLA Honorary Membership. Honorary Membership recognizes persons other than landscape architects whose achievements of national or international significance or influence have provided notable service to the profession of landscape architecture.

The deadline for all nominations is February 1, 2019.

Any ASLA professional member or ASLA chapter may submit nominations for ASLA honors. For more details on the nomination criteria by category, view the links above.

Questions about the nomination process for ASLA honors and honorary membership may be directed to honorsawards@asla.org or by calling 202-216-2331.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

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Ford Foundation restoration, New York City / Simon Luethi, Ford Foundation

Building Your ValuesCurbed New York, 11/20/18
“The Ford Foundation’s restoration of its landmark building makes a bold statement about what architecture owes the public today.”

It’s High Time to Memorialize the South’s History of LynchingThe Architect’s Newspaper, 11/2018
“According to a new report by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) entitled, Landslide 2018: Grounds for Democracy, numerous lynching sites in Shelby County, Tennessee, are virtually unmarked for their historical significance.”

Planning a Neighborhood SquareWestern Planner, 11/21/18
“Designing a neighborhood square to fulfill these social functions is not so simple. One of the biggest challenges is to get the proportions of the square right.”

How the Olmsted Brothers Shaped Our Natural Landscape Into a System of Interconnected, and Enduring, Public SpacesThe Seattle Times, 11/21/18
“John Charles Olmsted, the primary visionary of the Seattle Park System, developed a master plan that connected existing and planned green spaces across the city.”

Growing Green Spaces in the Sky CNN, 11/26/18
“At 85, landscape architect Richard Tan is still creating some of Singapore’s most iconic green walls and rooftop gardens.”

The State of City ParksU.S. News and World Report, 11/28/18
“City parks departments grapple with competing priorities as they recover from the Great Recession.”

Medellín Is Healing Itself with Social Urbanism

Medellín, Colombia / Maria Bellalta

The Colombian civil war that began in the 1960s killed some 220,000 people and displaced another 5 million, creating one of the largest groups of internally-displaced people in history.

In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia, Maria Bellalta, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), said the civil war was the terrible legacy of Spanish colonialism, which created a deeply unequal economic and social system that exploited both the environment and native peoples.

Colombians displaced from their farms in the countryside and severed from the natural environment by “greed and violence” ended up in cities like Medellín. There, the chaos of government and guerilla warfare, endemic poverty and great inequality, and the legacy of environmental destruction contributed to the rise of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, who ruled from the neighborhoods at the outer lip of the valley that gives form to the city.

All the violence and corruption scarred not only the city but also the landscape, said Bellalta, who has been bringing her students to Medellín to see and learn for the past few years. But a decade after the death of Escobar in 1993, Medellin invented a new approach, which then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo called “social urbanism.” The goal was to use urban design — and importantly, landscape architecture — to reduce inequality and heal the environmental damage.

Fajardo “invited disregarded communities to participate in planning efforts,” which resulted in major investments in new subways, aerial tramways, bicycle infrastructure, libraries, and beautiful parks — with the majority of the new amenities created in underserved communities. Efforts to “change the social dynamic” yielded new networks of aerial trams and lengthy escalators built into steep hills. These inventive, low-cost transportation systems created new connections to the city center for the once-isolated, difficult-to-reach communities with high numbers of low-income residents. World-class libraries and green spaces were purposefully built in the places that had no parks.

Aerial trams in Medellín / The Gondola Project
España Library-Park in Santo Domingo Savio in Medellín / Royal Institute of British Architects
Botanical garden of Medellín / Flickr

The city was also smart to re-use existing infrastructure. Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAS), which Bellalta said are equivalent to our YMCAs, were “strategically created by re-purposing existing water tanks that form part of the city’s hydraulic system.”

Bellalta noted an important public work that has also helped Medellin and Colombia heal: the Museum of Memory, a “poignant tribute to those who died or disappeared during the civil revolution.” The museum is found alongside a linear park that follows the Santa Elena stream. The park is designed to “offer relief through a magical re-encounter with nature and the cleansing attributes of water.”

Museum of Memory, stream found to the left of the museum / Juan David Botero

Lina Escobar, director of the landscape architecture program at the Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana in Medellín, further explained how the city is cleansing itself with water and nature.

Since its founding, the city has been intertwined with the Aburrá river — or Medellín river — and the Santa Elena creek, its primary tributary. “Medellín’s geography is determined by the river and tributaries that crosses the valley,” which has shaped the city’s orientation and patterns of development. In the 1940s, a 30-kilometer stretch of the Medellín river was put in a concrete channel to reduce flooding. As the population started to swell in the 1950s, the city developed around the river.

Medellín River / School of Landscape Architecture, Boston Architectural College
Medellín River / Maria Bellalta

Then in 2014, Medellín city government launched an international design competition to envision a new Medellín River Park (Parques del Rio). The competition asked firms to create a master plan for the entire length of the river as it cuts through the city and then focus in on the central zone — the 9-kilometer stretch through the core of the city.

Medellín-based firm Latitude beat out the competition with their concept for a “botanical park that recovers connections to water systems through a revitalized biotic metropolitan corridor.” The park developers will take parts of the concrete channel out, bury an adjacent highway, and create a new, lush green spine, with tendrils spreading throughout the valley.

Medellín River Park / Latitude
Medellín River Park / Latitude

Escobar said the new park, which is now in development, is not only a “new ecological structure for the region, but also re-frames people’s relationships with each other and nature after years of conflict.”

Medellín River Park / Latitude

Daniela Coray, who was a graduate student of Bellalta’s at BAC, said there are so many other opportunities to heal the rupture between city and nature. Her master’s thesis project looked at ways to restore the polluted Santa Elena stream, particularly near the emotionally-resonant Museum of Memory. “The stream holds the memory of geographical and social divisions that could begin a process of healing.”

Through an interesting aside that took us out of Medellín, Ken Smith, FASLA, founder of Ken Smith Workshop, related how principles of social urbanism could be applied at the landscape-scale in other cities. He “deliberately engineered” the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan for social interaction through inventive “social seating,” a dog park, and meandering paths that force people to see each other. “The paths curve because it’s impossible to meander in a straight line.”

East River Waterfront Esplanade / Ken Smith Workshop

The important but unspoken message was that the smart design strategies of social urbanism need to be more widely applied around the globe.