Climate Change at Walden

In 1851, Henry David Thoreau started recording when plants flowered in Concord, Massachusetts, the scene of his Walden. Now, notes from more than 200 years ago are serving as the basis for a complex inquiry into climate change and evolutionary biology.

The New York Times reports that researchers from Boston and Harvard Universities used Thoreau’s detailed notes, which were the result of hours spent tracking 500 species, to map which plant species still exist. They could now find seven of the 21 types of orchids Thoreau documented. 

In total, the researchers concluded that 27 percent of the species Thoreau documented have vanished, and 36 percent are found in such small numbers that they probably will not survive.

Data on Concord is leading to conclusions about the ecology of New England, and climate change more broadly. As Charles Davis, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard is quoted as saying, “Certain branches of the tree of life are being lopped off.” 

Read the full article

Interview with Kongjian Yu, China’s Renowned Landscape Architect

Kongjian Yu, International ASLA, and one of China’s top landscape architects, spoke with ASLA about the environmental crisis facing China, and what landscape architects can do to limit adverse environmental change.

In this wide-ranging interview, Yu called landscape architecture a key “ecological weapon” for battling China’s environmental problems.

Yu says: “Landscape architecture is now a tool for social justice and environmental stewardship. The battle should now go to China. When Olmsted invented this word and this profession, the major issue was social justice and the recreational needs of the American people. At that time, America was in a process of urbanization. Now, the same thing is happening in China, but more seriously, more severely, because of the environmental issues.”

Read the full interview with Kongjian Yu

What Technology Can Do for Landscape Architects

Daniel Tal, a consultant with Google SketchUp and designer at RNL Design, is interested in what new technology can offer landscape architects. Specifically, Tal is looking at Google SketchUp — he’s writing the upcoming guide to the software for Wiley & Sons.

Tal makes a strong case for using technology to design but argues that hand drawing will always be relevant. “I don’t think that it’s the end of hand drawing. I think with the technologies we have, we now have better ways to design for people that might not be interested, or be able to hand draw. But I still feel the ability to think in 3-D, which is what hand drawing really represents if you’re good at it, drives the ability to create good designs and is essential.”

Tal goes on to discuss “tradigital drawing,” which combines drawing and technological skills in a new craft.

Tal also makes a pitch for using Freemind, an open source mind-mapping software.

Read the full interview here

Land Matters: The Mind and the Soul

When I arrived at the entrance to the Pentagon Memorial on the evening of September 11—the day it opened to the public—my first view in the parking lot was of a man in motorcycle-club garb holding forth to a crowd. “The people who are remembered here were heroes,” he was saying. “They didn’t know it, but they were heroes.”
He was wrong, of course. The Americans who brought down that plane over Pennsylvania that September day—those were heroes. But the poor souls in the Pentagon? They were much like you and me—sitting at their desks toiling away at dry office tasks—when fire and steel struck them, literally out of the blue.
So it was a kind of relief to discover that the memorial itself doesn’t make the same mistake as the man in motorcycle garb. Nothing about it tries to pretend that those who died here were anything other than what they were. Husbands and wives. Parents, brothers, and sisters. Lovers and friends. Americans.
The memorial’s mood is somber, elegiac. It inspires you to reflect on the lives lost here without telling you what to think about them. The core of the design is 184 benches, one for each person killed, lined up in parallel rows that reminded me of flight paths. The design of the steel and granite benches is, to my eye, an elegant fusion of a jet aircraft in flight and a gravestone laid flat—so that the overall effect is of a cemetery where grave markers cruise at just above ground level.
Commentators are beginning to react to the memorial. Cathleen Falsani, the religion editor of the Chicago Tribune, who has visited shrines and temples here and abroad, was impressed. She wrote that the memorial is “a transcendent sanctuary” that “grabs hold of my soul and shakes it like no other house of the holy has.”
I can’t honestly say I felt that way. The memorial is admirable in its restraint and extremely elegant in its design. But soul shaking?
For one thing, the Pentagon context is a disincentive to feel anything very soulful. True, this is the very spot where the dark and terrible event took place, so any memorial built here is, or should be, very powerful. Yet this is one of the most sterile contexts that could possibly be imagined, ringed by high-speed urban streets, seas of parking, an interstate highway, and the utterly banal facade of the Pentagon itself. Designers like to believe that a beautiful design can rise above the most vacuous context. After visiting the Pentagon Memorial, I have to ask: Can even the most elegant design succeed in a place that’s no place at all?
Beyond that, I have become increasingly skeptical about the capacity of the rigidly formal, highly finished memorial to inspire profound feeling. The sorrow and gratitude I felt when I visited a very different 9/11 memorial—the temporary one at the crash site in Pennsylvania—was triggered by the outdoor display of small, humble tributes that many Americans had brought to the site and by hearing a moving spoken tribute by a woman who witnessed the crash. Sometimes the most ephemeral memorials touch us the most profoundly. Can the rigid elegance of the Pentagon Memorial really grab hold of our souls and shake them?
J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor /

Highlights from the ASLA Annual Meeting Roll In

It’s been a whirlwind few days in surprisingly sunny San Francisco for conference goers. The Annual Meeting broke all attendance records with over 6,000 attendees. From Charlie Thorton’s opening general session on the inspiring ACE Mentor program to ASLA Fellow Lawrence Halprin‘s surprise closing interview, ASLA members have spent their days here learning, sharing, and reconnecting with fellow landscape architects. We’ve celebrated award winners, learned about new trends in continuing education sessions, and, yes, had fun at various galas, dinners, and parties.

Look for in-depth recaps of all the major events both here on the Dirt and in upcoming issues of LAND Online. Five new Dirt podcasts featuring Vladimir Djurovic, International ASLA, Christian Werthmann, ASLA, Alex Washburn, Affiliate ASLA, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, and Charles’ interview with Lawrence Halpin, FASLA, will be available soon.