Don’t Look Back

What if landscape architects took the next step and, instead of designing with nature, designed nature itself? That is the question posed in a recent article in both The New York Times and its sibling International Herald Tribune. It explores MIT landscape architect Alan Berger’s proposal to basically invent a natural system to purify heavily polluted waters running into the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. While such projects usually focus on restoration, he says, areas such as this site between Rome and Naples are beyond such thinking, calling for far more dramatic measures. And he has the attention of the Italian government.

Land Matters: Owning the Land’s Future

Landscape architects with successful, far-flung practices shape places mostly at arm’s length. They fly in to client communities or project sites, do good work, and fly back to their offices to prepare the working drawings. At arm’s length, they change many places for the better. But when such a landscape architect decides to sink down deep roots in one spot on the planet, how does he or she shape that special place?
I found one answer to that question in August, when I joined a few landscape architects and planners in the remote Okanogan Valley in north-central Washington. There, Grant Jones, FASLA, pictured above, has bought an abandoned farm up near the Canadian border where (though he still puts in 30 hours a week at Jones & Jones in Seattle) he has begun spending more and more time. From what I can tell, he’s already fallen in love with this rugged northern valley hemmed in by dry, wrinkled mountains. The first morning, we hiked up Watch-Over-Us Hill (Grant, a poet, likes to put names to places), where he and his wife, Chong, have interred her mother’s ashes. There he read to us from one of his recent poems:
Standing now for hours on Watch-Over-Us Hill/I’m a compass pulled by the stars/Slowly spinning round this gneissic intrusion/Of weakly foliated, green hornblende./The words rise in my head/ Just like you said:/The land you stand on/And your body are one.
How has Grant begun to reshape this old farm, which he’s dubbed Coyote Springs? First, he shored up the collapsed barn. Then he and Chong fixed up the roughshod original farmhouse to make it livable, but make no mistake—this is no cushy villa for a city slicker’s weekend jaunts. He started a small tree nursery with the aim of reforesting the sagebrush hills above the farm. In the lower field he has broken ground for a garden with a “cosmic” theme—lots of nebula-like spirals—that he’ll build with a couple of hired hands and a vintage tractor.
Grant is connecting with the human landscape of the valley as well, and I was struck by the depth of connections that a landscape architect—a relative newcomer—can make in a relatively short time. For three days we crisscrossed the valley and up the highlands on either side, where Grant introduced us to activists in land trusts, the conservation-minded owner of a 2,200-acre ranch, and a “green building” contractor and his wife, who sculpts with welded steel. We visited families trying to start bootstrap businesses—crafting wines from a small vineyard or cheeses from a small herd of sheep and goats. We heard a farm laborer recite his own poems and an organic gardener preach the virtues of permaculture.
Having woven together these connections, what does Grant actually propose to accomplish in the valley, beyond transforming his own farm? I’m not sure even he knows yet, but the Okanogan, like so many unglamorous, working American landscapes, certainly needs the pro bono contributions of a landscape architect who knows its problems intimately. It has not yet felt the hot breath of development that has transformed the nearby Methow Valley, where a town with an “Old West”-themed main street and mountaintop villas testifies to the power of tourism to commercialize Western valleys. Such a fate may await the Okanogan once it is “discovered”—hence the need for a committed landscape architect to forge a more populist future.
In other watersheds, working rural landscapes, and urban neighborhoods across America, other landscape architects must be sinking deep roots and working pro bono with their communities to reshape their adopted places. Who and where are they?
J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor /

Harvard Introduces New Sustainable Design Master’s Concentration

tanner20fountain3This fall, the Master of Design Studies program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design introduced a new concentration area entitled “Sustainable Design,” which more closely integrates the various design professions in the cause of identifying design solutions to environmental challenges.  
Coordinated by Associate Professor of Architectural Technology Christoph Reinhart, the program will enable students to research holistic solutions for today’s environmental challenges. Particular areas of specialization are: lighting and daylighting design, building performance simulation, green building performance metrics, green roofs, automated controls, occupant behavior and satisfaction, acoustics, as well as lifecycle and embodied energy studies. Reaching beyond the building scale, sustainability studies pursue a broad range of topics that may include the impact of urban and landscape design on local climactic conditions, the investigation and design of water management techniques, traffic and infrastructure studies, strategies for brown fields and other disturbed sites, and questions of landscape ecology.

Election 08 and the Scientific Methods

The state of science funding, focus and, sometimes, foolishness in Washington, D.C., prompted a small group of concerned citizens to help move the topic of science higher on the political agenda. Spurred on by these concerned few, more than 38,000 scientists, engineers, and other concerned Americans eventually signed on to the effort, including ASLA, nearly every major American science organization, dozens of Nobel laureates, elected officials and business leaders, and the presidents of more than 100 major American universities.  See who here.  Among other things, these signers submitted more than 3,400 questions they wanted the candidates for president to answer about science and the future of America.

Nature, the Enemy

In the July 21 issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert takes on the lawn. “A NASA-funded study, which used satellite data collected by the Department of Defense,” she writes in “Turf War,” “determined that, including golf courses, lawns in the United States cover nearly 50,000 square miles—an area roughly the size of New York State. The same study concluded that most of this New York State-size lawn was growing in places where turfgrass should never have been planted. In order to keep all the lawns in the country well irrigated, the author of the study calculated, it would take an astonishing 200 gallons of water per person, per day.” She then proceeds to list the logical alternatives, from meadow to wildflowers to food. Well, nature is in the eyes of the beholder, it seems. In a letter in the September 1 issue, reader Michael Jorrin of Ridgefield, Conn., calls the suggestions “unrealistic. Don’t mow and let it revert to meadow? That’s not what happens. Our lawns are not planted with native grasses; what you’ll get is a hideous tangled, tick-infested mess that you won’t want to step into, and certainly won’t let your kids or dogs play in.”  And Samuel J. McNaughton of Syracuse, N.Y., takes the position, “If we were to let our lawns grow up, we provide attractive habitats for snakes, spiders, rodents, deer (the latter two spread Lyme disease), deer flies, mosquitoes, and other undesirable organisms.” Seems there is still an appetite out there to put nature in its place.