How Algorithms Shape the Landscape

Is the work of artist Michael Najjar, which splices the images of landscapes with the peaks and troughs of indexes like the Dow Jones, a metaphor or a prophecy? Leading his TEDTalk with this question, Kevin Slavin, the chairman and co-founder of game development company Area/Code, demonstrates how algorithms are starting to impact our landscape at the grand scale. “The landscape was always made by the weird, uneasy collaboration of nature and man. There’s now a third evolutionary force,” Slavin says.  

Slavin walked the audience through concrete examples of how algorithms are not only driving financial trading but also shaping culture and the physical landscape. The public, especially since the financial crisis, knows that algorithms are the foundation of the financial system. But Slavin also demonstrates their growing influence in other areas of our lives: they provide the underlying logic for cleaning robots and “destination control elevators,” and allow Netflix to analyze movie plots, which makes them better at serving up movie recommendations. Slavin calls this the “physics of culture,” and then introduces the way the way these efficiencies are “terraforming,” or taking physical shape.

In an effort to maximize the earning power of algorithms, landscapes are being altered in both subtle and dramatic ways. The hidden “carrier hotel,” for example, is a building gutted to host telecommuications and data networking service centers by companies like FiberNet and Google. Wall Street financial firms now vie for spaces closer to these buildings so their financial transactions can occur just that much faster than their competitors. The landscape of firms in Wall Street is subtly shifting to gain advantage using this new infrastructure.

And now the physical landscape is actually being altered: Spread Networks dynamited paths through mountains in order to create a 825 mile trench from New York to Chicago for higher-speed fiber optic cables, which can transfer one signal 37 times faster than you can click your mouse. “When you think about this, that we’re running through the United States with dynamite and rock saws so that an algorithm can close the deal 3 microseconds faster all for a communications framework that no human will ever know, that’s a kind of manifest destiny. We’ll always look for a new frontier,” Slavin said.

Studies show that the drive to make money may lead to grander landscape transformation. Slavin says, “it’s not the money that’s so interesting, actually, it’s what the money motivates –that we’re actually terraforming the earth itself with this kind of algorithmic efficiency. And in that light you look back at Michael Najjar’s photos and you see that they’re not metaphor. They’re prophecy for the seismic terrestrial effects of the math that we’re making.”

Slavin predicts how financial industries and telecommunication infrastructure will increasingly shape of our landscape and built environment. But is anyone discussing how these enormous infrastructure projects could impact our ecosystems, our original networks?

Watch Kevin Slavin’s TEDTalk. Check out Michael Najjar’s High Altitude Series.

This guest post is by Amanda Rosenberg, ASLA 2010 Intern.

Image credits: (1) Chicago to New York ICT infrastructure / Spread Network, (2) High Altitude Series / Michael Najjar

City Landscapes, Urban Habitat


The landfill of Kearny, New Jersey, is the site of Steven Handel’s early work restoring urban habitat. It is constructed on top of a wetland. The fill material specified for landfill cover make poor soils, and the railroads, interstates, and cloverleaf interchanges work as barriers to dispersal. His work began with a question: “What can a field botanist do to help this?”

The University of Virginia department of landscape architecture recently hosted restoration ecologist Dr. Steven Handel of Rutgers University for a presentation and discussion of his work in restoring urban habitat. Handel is the Director of the Center for Urban Restoration Ecology (CURE), a joint partnership between Rutgers University and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. In the last decade he has worked as a consultant with landscape firms such as SCAPE, James Corner Field Operations, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Ken Smith on projects that have helped establish restoration ecology as an important component of urban landscape design. His presentation focused on the importance of ongoing monitoring and adaptation and the concept of stewardship in the creation of vital urban landscapes.

Handel discussed some of his early work at the Keegan Landfill in Kearny, New Jersey, and how that project led to work on Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, New York, and, eventually collaborations on landscape projects in Europe, China, and across the U.S. This work is best characterized not by the resulting images and supporting data that have become key components of landscape architectural presentations, but by the ecological approach itself. Each project is a dynamic constellation of actors and agents: gravel contractors, city bureaucracies, ecology students, groundwater, and honey bees. In this constellation the ecologist is not the mastermind, but rather one of the primary catalysts. The ecologist joins this willow tree with that robin, this compost depot with that acre of landfill cover in the interest of creating landscapes that include a wealth of inhabitants, from mushrooms and chimney swifts to willow trees and teenagers.

Maintenance and Ecological Thinking
 

Looking south over Fresh Kills landfill in 2002 empty debris barges from the World Trade Center site can be seen in the lower right hand corner. Steven Handel’s partnership with the Department of Sanitation began here in 2000 and took on new significance after 9/11: “what was a hated place became a sacred place.”

In the presentation, Handel outlined the two most important objectives when beginning any urban ecological restoration project: what is the ecological target for restoration?, and how can we rebuild the soil? Everything else follows from those two questions. For any kind of restoration project, whether it a piece of colonial architecture or a 2,000 acre municipal landfill, defining the desired outcome is the fundamental problem. The second objective is particular to urban ecological restoration projects. Handel noted that urban soils are notorious for their inability to support healthy ecosystems due to compaction, contamination, and a lack of microbes. What is more, they are extremely varied — one block is contaminated with high levels of lead and the next is choked with concrete and asphalt dust.

For Handel, the maintenance budgets of city agencies are poorly conceived and misappropriated. Maintenance takes on an entirely new definition when it is informed by an ecological approach. Tasked with the unenviable job of trying to maintain landscapes in a static state, current maintenance practice too often resists the other organisms at work in the landscape while doing too little to monitor and observe change. Project budgets are designed for major capital investments up front followed by a maintenance plan that aims to protect the landscape from change. Handel throws into relief the fundamental misalignment between maintenance policies and funding mechanisms that tend toward static and compartmentalized concepts of landscape and an ecological approach to creating vital urban habitat.

In many urban projects, the ecological constraints – opportunity for dispersal, regeneration of soils, disturbance regimes – are in conflict with the regulatory structures set by rigid engineering norms. Handel noted that scale-dependent ecological processes rely on a lapse of time, and, therefore, landscape projects need instruments and mechanisms that can hold a portion of the budget in reserve so that monitoring can occur over 10 years and adaptations to initial strategies can be incorporated. For him, the idea of ecosystem services–a movement to quantify the benefits of natural systems as economic value– is useful in this discussion because it inserts the animals, plants, topography, and other aspects of ecosystems into the budget and profit strategies that dictate the terms of development and management of most of our urban land. 

The Importance of Rhetoric

The concept of ecosystem services is contentious. In addition to being difficult to quantify, it suggest that costs that have traditionally been externalized (such as CO2 emissions) be accounted for. Nonetheless, in specific, localized situations, the idea that restoring a healthy ecosystem to a former municipal landfill so that it can serve as bird habitat and a community recreation area is one that is gaining traction and is worth an investment. 

Handel noted that prior to 9/11, the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island was a “hated landscape.” People wanted it gone, and if they could not make it go away then they certainly did not want to spend money on it. As the final resting place for the remains and debris from the World Trade Center, the landfill overnight became a “sacred landscape.” It was worth investing in. While undertaking his project there, he was working with communities and trying to help them understand the importance of bees in pollinating plants and creating healthy plant communities. He told an anecdote of going to a community meeting and trying to convince people that bringing bees back to this place would provide many benefits. This was not well-received. He realized that by simply referring to them as “pollinators” (the benefit they provide) and not “bees” (their cultural symbol with some negative connotations) the project won their support. This observation is the real contribution of Handel’s work: For him, ecosystems are not pristine examples of natural systems, but are messy networks of social and natural entities, all mashed together and trying to find ways of going about their business, whether that is pollinating a stand of service berries or trying to catch the 7 train.



A NYC subway car in 1973. This is an ecology too.

Scientific Stewardship and a Future Ecological Ethic

The presentation culminated with the importance of stewardship of the land and the development of tools and methods for engendering a more responsible environmental ethic. The stewardship concept itself is contentious, with notable scholars such as Carolyn Merchant rightly pointing out that the idea dates back to the origins of Judeo-Christian society and comes with a whole host of gender specific and anthropocentric connotations. At the end of her book Reinventing Eden, she suggests that the idea of kinship–a partnership among equals–might be the future environmental ethic, a suggestion that seems more in line with ecological thinking.

This emphasis of Handel’s would seem to be antithetical to the ecological approach, with the honey bee and the fungus carrying an important role in the ecosystem, right alongside the park user and the bulldozer operator. As a steward, you might care for the land, but you still survey it, decide what should be done, and then go back to your dwelling. There is a hierarchy and the human is at the top. It is the opposite of amongst-ness. But then, Handel is actually out there, digging in the stinking muck of Keegan Landfill and counting preying mantis on Staten Island. You don’t get much more among things than that.


A new ecological policy for the landfills of Jamaica Bay is the legacy of Steven’s work. Located in the center at the top of the image, the landfills are currently being maintained as an ecological restoration project, with the mowed grassy hills slowly changing into thriving upland ecosystems on the edge of the bay.

This guest post is by Brian Davis, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia School of Architecture, and editor of FASLANYC.

Image credits: (1) Landfill of Kearny, New Jersey / Google Earth , (2) Fresh Kills Landfill / Cryptome, (3) NYC Subway Car, 1973 / U.S. National Archives, (4) Landfills of Jamaica Bay / Google Earth

The Next Wave of Modernism: Healing Urban Landscapes


“The first wave of modernism was about beauty and sensuality, but the second wave may be about confrontation – confronting the mistakes of the past,” said Brad McKee, Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine, at The Second Wave of Modernism II: Landscape Complexity and Transformation, a day-long conference organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. McKee described the changes that have overcome American cities: the rise of global competition and the decline of large-scale manufacturing, the mass number of companies and people who fled industrial waterfronts, leaving toxic wastelands. “This is the industrial legacy designers confront.”

He added that toxic brownfield sites have proliferated over the years with devastating but often undiagnosed effects on families. The idea that human health and the built environment are linked has only been gaining steam in the past 10 years. But now at least, “obesity, diabetes, asthma, depression, anxiety can all be attributed to factors in the environment.” For McKee, the public is also now skeptical about “big ideas”, grand concepts imposed by policymakers and designers. Urban dwellers can see the damage these ideas can cause so the next waves of Modernism in cities may focus more on “places for people,” and integrating public health and ecological sustainability into design.

Some high-profile landscape architects described how they are tackling some of these challenges:

The Beauty of Derelict Landscapes

Julie Bargmann, ASLA, Founding Principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, said Modern architects and landscape architects thought of their starting point as a cleared site or site that was “not a site at all.” All the better to build their idealized forms on top of a blank slate. Now, thinking has changed: site matters. “Site specificity has become important for those not caught in formalism.” 

Bargmann grew up in New Jersey. “The turnpike was my landscape.” Industrial sites form a specific landscape, a landscape shaped by machines. These landscapes are the effects of the “ambitious imprint of labour” as represented by Diego Rivera’s murals of labourers, which exemplify the romance of industrial labour. Because of this, “we can’t clear these embedded histories.” They are important.

With Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Bargmann worked on River Rouge, helping Michigan understand that this industrial riverfront is actually a “cultural landscape, and not a landscape to be wiped clean.” Her team helped “add a layer with restraint, being respectful of the contradictions” in the site. Another well-known project is the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, which she transformed into a new corporate home for Urban Outfitters. The challenge: half of the site is still an active Navy base. Taking cues from the site’s rugged productive history, she said the site had to be “built like a motherf**cker.” Site elements, like the dramatic ship crainways, were unearthed and used to inform the new design, forming a new promenade. The “arabesque” pattern of the old railways helped create the paths. Within the water-filled crainway, she added ecological floating wetlands, spelling out the word “URBAN,” which she noted are viewable by planes flying overhead (see photo above). She stockpiled all debris piled up on the site, all the dug-up asphalt, and reused as pavers she lovingly named “Barney Rubble.” Then, she put “pink flowery trees over the tough stuff, just for fun.”

As many speakers described their early influences, Bargmann said she always admired Eva Hesse, and the post-minimalists. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, her teacher at Harvard Graduate School of Design, instilled in her a “passion for the specifics of a landscape.” She also talked about public artist Mel Chin and her work with him on making the problem of toxic soils more transparent. Chin is focused on raising awareness and funds to deal with the massive soil lead problems in New Orleans (see earlier post).

Lastly, Bargmann made a powerful case for the derelict “urban voids” that are a “byproduct of urbanization but are vital to contemporary culture.” She said these “left-over places,” the space abandoned near waterfronts and highways in cities, which are so often featured in Jim Jarmusch films, “can’t be designed with a capital D.” These “orphan, wild landscapes with no author or title” are valuable, as they represent growth and decay. She wondered if a new form of urban park could be created out of these places, basically leaving them as they are, but removing the toxicity.

A Rational, Systems Approach

James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, designer of the High Line, and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania revealed his influences and inspirations. Growing up in Manchester, an industrial city, “I had a tough environment.” The counter-culture was raging, with bands like The Smiths at center stage. It was a place where “you had to be tough to survive.” But now, as then, it was also a “city of fashion, art, music.” The industrial center was dramatically different from the North lake district Corner went on the weekends. There, he would “mess around in nature,” and was awed by the “weather-bound atmospherics” of the landscape. “It was a very strong pairing with the city, with the scale and weather.”

Corner fell into landscape architecture. “In the UK, there’s a matrix that tells you what to do.” He said he “didn’t know what he was getting into,” but three years of being at art and design school pushed me into “conceptual thinking, thinking outside the box.” His first project as an intern was with Richard Rogers & Partners, where he worked on the Royal Docks project, a huge urban redevelopment project. He said no one could orchestrate the entire scheme – each discipline was narrowly focused on their own concerns (see an earlier post on these ideas). The result was a project that had no public realm, no one was representing the “environmental, infrastructural point of view.”

At the University of Pennsylvania, he was blown over by Ian McHarg and his Design With Nature. Then, he began to understand that “landscape architects could play a stronger role at a bigger scale and could do regional scale work.” He learned how to nest local landscapes in urban ones and regional ones, a “layering approach.” Corner then became inspired by theories and models that didn’t just view layers analytically, but offered “projective layers” that came from “future programs.” The intelligence of these types of layers could form a “montage.” As an example, he pointed to Peter Eisenman’s work, which deals with “archeologies, not analytic layers or projective layers, but archeological layers – the thick matte network of spaces and milieu.” Other influences and inspirations included Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, a “fantastic vision,” and Robert Rauschenberg’s “flat-bed canvases,” which were important because they “didn’t represent anything, had no top or bottom; they were just paintings as work” (see image below). Rome, the city, also inspires him because its “fabric grew in an organic way. There was no big city put down.”

Corner then explored the idea of aggregate forms that can be “bottom up or top down, easily grown or replicated.” As an example, he pointed to beads of sweat on skin, arguing that the surface of skin is “biologically living, self-regulating. It’s a surface whose formal properties are limited by its process.” In the same way, a forest is “something that grows up out of small aggregates.” These aggregate forms can come together as different types of systems – some are “super pragmatic engineering monoliths,” while others are “inter-relational layers” that allow for blending and folding and new situations and programs. The big idea: form and process are inter-related, “intrinsically connected.” He added that this isn’t “a sidebar or conceptual; it’s a way to deal with problems.”

For example, FreshKills park, a project Corner has been working on for some time, is four square miles, a “massive project.” To deal with the massive scale of the project, Corner and his team “designed a process, a series of techniques” that can “self-evolve, emerge” to address the difficult ecological restoration challenges within the site. “Then, we make more places within it,” places that can bring people in. For the QianHai Water City, a new city for two million people Corner is designing outside of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, there are “five streams that serve as a big armature for organizing the site” (see image below). The only problem is that the water is highly polluted so the water is now “retained and processed” before it reaches the central bay. This is green infrastructure at a massive scale – central parks, which also provide aesthetic public spaces, become a key part of the city. Corner is also organizing a city grid with smaller blocks (the Chinese, he said, like mega-blocks), and a schematic for how new mixed-use buildings and density can be layered in over time. But, he said, the “landscape infrastructure is being built first.” Lastly, Corner also sees the High Line park in New York City as a big system. “We were concerned with the organization of systems. Of couse, we pay attention to places, detail, craft, but it’s really about how to build a system.”


Give People a Sense of Discovery

Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, Founding Partner and Director, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, grew up in Yakoma, Washington, where there are “some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.” There, the “natural hues of the desert” were contrasted with the canals and water-intensive fruit orchard and agricultural landscapes. Her upbringing gave her a “love of water, channelized water.” Gustafson went to Versaille, France for landscape architecture school, where they “did teach me monumentality.” One of her early influences was “little known French landscape architect Jaques Sgard, who was a master at creating place.” He created contemporary, sculptural, playful spaces for leisure “but they weren’t defined by that.” Isamu Noguchi’s small scupture also inspired her because even within the small shapes, “your imagination soars.”

“I also work in layers,” Gustafson said, refering to Corner’s earlier presentation. She said over the years, more layers have been added for landscape architects to deal with. “Landscape architecture is becoming complex. Just providing the program is not enough. All the layers need to come together.” She added that where all these layers need to come together is in “urban parks, which are what is important.” She added that “it may sound boring but it’s not all about systems”: it’s all about public health and environmental sustainability. “Parks are key to urban sustainability.”

Gustafson introduced her own theoretical approach, “contemporary picturesque,” to describe what she’s trying to accomplish. She said contemporary picturesque landscapes are “places that pull you through the landscape. This is landscape as theatre, creative journey.” Within this are views, scales, principles and hierarchies. She made a point of saying that hierarchy is very important. For her, the forefather of the contemporary picturesque is Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of NYC’s Central Park). Nowadays, Gustafson added “nature is the program. Landscapes are becoming functional; they are cleaning things up.”

One of her new large-scale projects is the 130-acre Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee. “Over time, it had become a non-functional park.” There’s a beautiful lake, a replicated Parthenon, and places to go but now it’s filled with cars. “It’s totally stuck in the 1960s.” She said it was politically challenging to get the parking lots out but she managed to do this. Also, her team is creating a new plan for both formal and natural areas, a glass house winter garden, restaurants, and experimental gardens, along with a stormwater management plan. “Some spaces will be very intimate, natural, while others will be formal. It’s about creating a place to be in. Parks can’t just be one thing. Some like flowers and meadows,” while others want sports spaces. She added that “lawn will only be used for programs, for festivals.”

In Valencia, Spain, she’s managing a 125-acre urban redevelopment project (see earlier post). Train tracks are moving underground, freeing up an enormous amount of space. She said the challenge here was “how to create a park that feels like it is of that place.” She can’t “bring in a system from somewhere else.” Using the concept of a bowl, which is about “food, giving, growth,” she aims to connect multiple elements. She wants to create place there “that you want to go to.” There will be six bowls within the park, all providing different functions. Within, there will be “poles of attraction” drawing visitors through the park so there’s a “constant experience.”


Gustafson concluded that “it’s important to have systems but people need to have discovery.” Landscape architects need to “create what people need in cities, need to create poetry.”

Image credits: (1) Urban Outfitters Headquarters / Bloomberg News (2) Urban Outfitters Headquarters “Barney Rubble / D.I.R.T. Studio, (3) Untitled (formerly titled Collage with Horses) by Robert Rauschenberg / Wikipaintings, (4) Qianhai Water City / Field Operations. Shenzhen Daily News, (5) Centennial Park Master Plan / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, (6) Valencia Parque Central / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Rethinking Urban Renewal


Landscape architects were implicated in misguided urban renewal schemes, said Thaisa Way, PhD, ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington at The Second Wave of Modernism II: Landscape Complexity and Transformation, a day-long conference organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Before Jane Jacobs and the many urban activists she inspired put a stop to the most egregious errors, habitats and landscape were destroyed, leading to the mass alienation of urban residents. Renewal was a horror, but then again, “people love the view of the Coloseum” in Rome (which really was one of the original urban renewal projects). Way said in some cases we still may have to refrain from harsh judgements on big urban renewal projects  because “rarely are these projects all good or all bad.”

Now, with a broad public process, communities are renewing their cities, but this time remaking the urban image in their own form. “There are now broad, complex narratives.” One new approach is to “renew, not replace works of modernism” that still pervade most cities. Old urban renewal projects are now being re-intepreted by today’s dynamic, sustainability-minded landscape architects, creating very different projects in the process.

Raymond Jungles and Herzog + de Meuron Renew Miami

Raymond Jungles, FASLA, said he was “born as a Jungles in Nebraska.” As a kid, he was deeply inspired by nature. Trips to a Sequoia forest “made a huge impact.” Later, he discovered Luis Barragan in an architecture magazine in a doctor’s office. He was so enamoured with the work, he stole the magazine. Attending the landscape architecture program at the University of Florida, he was then awed by Roberto Burle Marx, who would later become his friend and mentor up until that great Brazilian landscape architect’s death.

Jungles relayed a set of inspirational ideas that have guided him: “Study nature, stay close to nature, it will never fail you” (Frank Lloyd Wright). “Always do what you say you are going to do” (his mother). Also, “do right, fear not.” For him, another inspiration is nature in Florida. Even in his urban, man-made projects, he tries to project this view of nature, adding that “gardens are for man, they are not natural, but should be complimentary to nature.”

In Miami, Jungles collaborated with Herzog + de Meuron on their 1111 Lincoln Road project, creating a new streetscape, plaza, and two lush interior courtyards inspired by Modern sidewalk designs planned but unrealized in Miami (see image at top and below). For his new streetscape, Jungles created combined platforms that serve as benches, house bioinfiltration and silva cell system to keep the islands of rich vegetation healthy, and feature plants from the Everglades, bringing native Floridian landscape back to the city.


He called the project “bringing back the mangroves.” He added that “kids love it” and he’s really happy about that.


Charles Renfro on the Role of Glass in Contemporary Urban Renewal  

Charles Renfro, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, largely veered away from Modern landscape architecture, instead talking about glass. He said it’s a material that has “transformed cities,” creating a “new level of engagement,” so perhaps we need to “rethink what glass is about.” He said glass can be used to frame a new relationship with the city, just as James Corner Field Operations and his firm have done to great effect in segments of the High Line park.

“Glass performs best when you least understand its presence,” said Renfro. In the case of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, the absence of structural elements – just walls of glass – bring nature right into the house.

Unfortunately, he added, with post-modernism, “glass, minimalism, functionalism had fallen off the map.” Post-modernism grew up because many architects thought “architecture had lost its meaning.” Modern buildings were no longer embodied with meaning but dull and characterless.

Rem Koolhaas then brought a focus on “seeing,” making the process of seeing “layered and complex.” One of his preoccupations then became “looking at looking.” For Renfro, glass could become about “manipulation, turning things on its head.” As an example, in the High Line, glass holes in the girders provide views. The 10th avenue overlook turns the city into a theatre. Glass helps accomplish this.


In their revamp of Lincoln Center, Diller Scofidio + Renfro also used glass to try to “undo much of the damage” of that massive urban renewal project. In that case, “a thriving neighborhood was turned into a stark, unfriendly place.” The great modern architects who worked on Lincoln Center didn’t see the dense brownstone-filled streets as a neighborhood, merely a slum ready for a new concept. To remedy their errors, his firm “stripped the base from the buildings” of Alice Tully Hall, creating a new sense of “inside/outside” urban appeal. By blurring inside and out, he hopes they helped “correct urban wrongs.” One important piece of the project was the Illumination Lawn, a new slanted public green roof park on top of one of the area’s most pricey restaurants.


In contrast with the rave reviews of the new Alice Tully Hall and their work on the High Line park, The New York Times didn’t give the firm’s landscape work in Lincoln Center a positive review, arguing that famed Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley had done a better job with some of the original, challenging plaza spaces.

In addition, in a rare public rebuke from a conference organizer, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, President and Founder, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, found Renfro’s reference to the Lincoln Center lawns, which he said “were for all you landscape architects,” “offensive.” Birnbaum clearly wanted Renfro to focus on how architects and landscape architects work together on urban projects, and said “we need to stop playing the game” that pits different design fields against each other.

Elizabeth Meyer and Michael Van Valkenburgh Use Nature to Renew the Arch Grounds in St. Louis

Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia, and Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Principal, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, teamed up to discuss the St. Louis Arch grounds restoration and redesign project now underway. Van Valkenburgh beat out many firms to win that competition (see earlier interview).

Meyer said the public focus has always been on Eero Saarinen‘s great arch, with little attention paid to the important work of his key partner, Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley, who designed the grounds. Perhaps this is because the grounds took so long to complete: While the design for the grounds were completed in 1965, the design wasn’t fully implemented until 1981.

Stepping back for a moment, Meyer said many urban renewal projects were “biophysical wastelands,” featuring compacted soils, low oxygen levels, heavy runoff, and other complex ecological problems. “Parks and gardens were grafted onto guilty urban renewal sites” but little there was little thought to the biotic health of the systems. She said the sustainable re-design effort is a challenge, because “remaking some of these original elements makes no sense.” Since the park was designed, concepts of environmental sustainability have dramatically changed. “Sustainable design would remove key aspects like lawns.” On the other side, there are those who argue for the preservation of all materials to ensure the integrity of the design.

As for the design, Kiley’s “matrix of abstracted woods” and allees, boscs, and groves were set within Saarinen’s curved forms and planes. Guided by Kiley’s design, Meyer (who is a consultant to Van Valkenburgh on this project) found that there were different spatial and natural types that could be defined. These in turn can be used to create “landscape maintenance zones.” She said this will help Van Valkenburgh and the team’s environmental consultants work in zones now, which is “easier than dealing with materiality.” The lessons from her research: the site has a “complex landscape matrix,” there can be a “working urban ecosystem,” and the project was a “historical collaboration” between a great architect and landscape architect.  

Van Valkenburgh said it’s an “extremely complicated project.” His team focused on the theme of nature, naturalism, and the woods. Exploring the site, they found that “the further you go from the Arch, the less the design follows Saarinen and Kiley’s original ideas.” So they focused in on the edges and how to “hotwire this Modern masterpiece into the city.” For Van Valkenburgh, it’s critical that visitors “experience the city as part of the grounds.”

The team will remove parking lots and create “at grade” connections to make pedestrian access a lot easier. New entry ways will deepen the connection between the city and park. While nothing can be done about the train tracks framing one edge of the site (which Saarinen failed to get the railroad companies to divert), walkable pathways cut underneath the train lines will move visitors into the park. Dishing “large meadows of land,” which were the “biomorphic preoccupations of the era,” will, of course, be preserved given how central they are to the overall design. Furthermore, the park will now meet “contemporary disabilities standards.”


The landscape, which will be remade with sustainable design best practices, will put and end to the “mow, blow, and go” approach used so often. The National Park Service is eager to apply more sustainable landscape maintenance approaches, asking for new ecological management approaches for the lawns and woods. To get rid of the algae, which is due to excessive runoff, Van Valkenburgh will separate the pond from the lawns, building in intermediary wetland systems and changing the chemical balance of the water bodies.


For Van Valkenburgh and many other landscape architects during the conference, many of these projects represent literal re-makings of their idols’ works. Early on, Van Valkenburgh was inspired by Kiley’s gardens, including the Miller Garden. He said Kiley represents a “controlling idea of nature, which is very different from how we dance with nature now.” When asked what happens when one of the trees in his carefully set grids die, Kiley responded that “that’s when the bosc gets good, when chance comes in, it becomes better.” Nowadays, as a result, Van Valkenburgh said, “we are more comfortable with things we can’t control.”

Read the next post in this series on the conference: The Next Wave of Modernism: Healing Urban Landscapes.

Image credits: (1-3) 1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida / Raymond Jungles, (4) 10th Avenue Overlook, The High Line, NYC / Broccoli Designs, (5-6) St. Louis Arch Grounds Redesign / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates   

The New Wave of Modern Landscapes


The Second Wave of Modernism II: Landscape Complexity and Transformation, a day-long conference organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, argued that Modern landscape architects no longer start projects with the idea of a site as blank slate, ready be transformed by an artist’s vision. Now, it’s about “complexity and transformation.” Landscape architects must now work with complex systems, including cultural and ecological systems, and have been transforming early modernist sites into more functional, people-friendly spaces that also enhance the natural environment.

Moving from small-scale residential and urban projects up through large-scale urban redevelopment projects, the conference sought to explore the “legacy of Modernism and how it drives landscapes types today,” and how “this generation of landscape architects are responding to sites with modern histories,” said Jane Amidon, ASLA, Professor and Director, Urban Landscape, Northeastern University, School of Architecture. For her, the demands of public health and new information and communication technologies, along with changing social morays, are changing how landscapes are created and used.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, President and Founder, of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, added that it was important that the conference, which is a follow-up to a 2008 conference in Chicago, was held at MoMA in New York City, where innovative parks projects are “propelling landscape architecture in this city and worldwide.”

The first panel dealt with how today’s landscape architects are transforming Modern residential landscapes:

Revitalizing Richard Neutra’s Kun 2 House

Lisa Gimmy, ASLA, Lisa Gimmy Landscape Architecture, explained how she created a new landscape for famed Modern architect Richard Neutra‘s Kun 2 house in Los Angeles. The building, created in 1950, has large windows with unobstructed views. However, oddly, vines were hung down blocking views, which she found “puzzling.” In addition, in 1997, a landslide lead to the failure of one slope, meaning work was needed to shore up the building, which is perched on a steep site.

“Neutra approaches every project from the landscape perspective,” said Gimmy. His more famous projects like the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs almost recede into the landscape. To preserve this effect here, Gimmy applied an elegant, modern, but also ecologically sound approach to ensure that the house was also safe from landslides. A “dry-stacked bolder wall” was created at the base of the house and the side of a re-graded driveway. At the base of the house, the rough granite borders and succulents, which Neutra used to great effect with his partner landscape architects, Lockwood de Forest and Ralph Stephens, were put in place to “contrast with the sleek building.” Korea grasses, rich and lush, look like waves lapping against the house (see image at top and below). An impact wall was put in that will be increasingly hidden as shrubs grow in. Gimmy’s work revitalizes the project while preserving Neutra’s unique Modern vision.


Bringing Ecological Science to Norman Jaffe’s Work

Christopher LaGuardia, ASLA, principal, LaGuardia Design, spoke about Modern architect Norman Jaffe, who designed contemporary residential beach houses in eastern Long Island that included evocative sculptural forms made of wood. An early proponent of using natural materials, he also explored passive design. His porfolio, LaGuardia said, was more varied than people realize, and included a synagogue in the Hamptons, which many architecture critics thought was his greatest work.

According to LaGuardia, Jaffe thought every building “did violence to the landscape” so he used the earth to bring down the scale of the home and make his homes “closer to the ground.” His sleek “barn forms,” which started his career, were the ones he also returned to later in his life.

In one restoration of a degraded landscape around a Jaffe home, LaGuardia quietly re-set the grade moving towards the house so it slightly rises. Meadow grasses “highlight the sculptural qualities of the gradings.” The use of a single native material – beach grassses – is elegant, in keeping with Jaffe’s use of simple forms and woods. In addition, LaGuardia actually created a pond from scratch to the building recede further into the landscape. All native plantings now surround a vital man-made ecosystem.

Renewing Philip Johnson’s Beck House


Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, of Reed Hilderbrand said the Philip Johnson-designed Beck House in Dallas, Texas, was highly degraded, and the “latent spatial power of the trees” was largely invisible. An aging Mrs. Beck had abandoned the site for two decades. In 2002, the home was sold to a young family of four, who undertook the renewal process the site needed.

Hilderbrand said Johnson and Mrs. Beck got on famously. He “brought his theatricality to Dallas,” which Mrs. Beck loved. The Texas work of his period, which represents a sort of Texas – New York exchange, was a “significant departure from the international style and a move towards more figurative work.” A “faberge glamour” pervades the stairway within the home, but there’s also a “deliberate dettachment” in the procession of landscape views.

The recovery process was “disruptive and require the removal of dozens of trees,” including invader plants. The trees cleared actually helped the canopy, giving space for hearty trees to grow. “There was an amazingly tough crop of trees to work with.” A whole new “drainage regime” was created, addressing soil structure and moisture issues. It took three times for the biological reserve created on the sites’ river banks to take hold.

For the ecological recovery, Hilderbrand also had to get deeply involved in “Johnson’s spatial structure,” and “revive, transform, and tamper with Johnson’s procession of views.” The young family who purchased the site wanted to “make this domestic, but also an outdoor space for sculptural works.” Hilderbrand and his team redid the driveways, created a new garden passageway through one part of the house, and altered the stairs to the landing in the rear of the house. The “larger order to us” was the creek so new plinths were set in parallel to the water. He said the new work simply “added a layer on top of the existing work.” The site is now in a place of “active stewardship, and hopefully will be more enduring and beautiful.”


Learn more about this ASLA award winning project.

Also, learn more about some of the pioneers of American Modern landscape architecture through a recent book by Charles Birnbaum and Stephanie Foell: Shaping the American Landscape: New Profiles from the Pioneers of American Landscape Design Project.

Read the next post in this series on the conference: Rethinking Urban Renewal.

Image credits: (1-2) Kun 2 House, Los Angeles / Deniz Durmus, (3-4) Beck House / Alan Ward

Interview with Kevin Conger, CMG Landscape Architecture


Kevin Conger, ASLA, is one of the three founding partners of Conger Moss Guillard (CMG) Landscape Architecture, a San Francisco-based studio. Conger, who is president and CEO of CMG, has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design, University of California at Berkeley, and Boston Architectural College.

Repurposing more than 480 acres of an old naval base, the new Treasure Island redevelopment project will feature a 60-story tower and buildings housing 15,000 people, a mix of condos and affordable housing opportunities, bioswales of wetlands, some 300 acres of parks and public spaces, along with an integrated system to protect against sea level rise. The project was one of the select few identified as a “climate positive” model for sustainable urban development by the Clinton Climate Initiative. How will the project achieve climate positive standards?

The project is aiming for a 60 percent per capita reduction in emissions, which is 10 percent lower than experts have estimated is necessary to reduce emissions to stabilize global warming. What’s interesting about the Clinton Climate Initiative is that they require you to have a rigorous system for measuring actual performance. They combine that with an adaptive, flexible strategy that in theory allows you to adjust strategies as these big projects are developed over time. In the case of Treasure Island, that will be two decades. You can measure and adjust the strategies as you move forward.

That’s the big move, which says, Let’s not just say we’re going to do it, but let’s set some metrics, measure, and if necessary, adjust as we go. It’s a pretty big commitment for the partnership, which is between the city and the developers, to say we will enter into a kind of a partnership where we will allow for the agreement to change, or the commitments to change as we move forward, based on how it actually works.

Your firm has also been working with the Yerba Buena Community District to create a new vision for the “next generation of public space” in this central part of San Francisco. The 10 year plan includes both large scale projects and short term design interventions. The goal is to promote street life and increase social interaction. What are the key problems facing the community? What are the central elements of the new plan and the many design proposals?

This part of San Francisco, within the South of Market district, is pretty large. It covers 11 miles of streetscape around the Moscone Convention Center. The SFMoMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are located there. There are a lot of hotels that have come into this area. All of that redevelopment happened in ’80s and ’90s. Along with that, there has been quite a bit of housing, some of which was there before. There’s a lot of senior and low-income housing, as well as just some older housing built after the earthquake. The area was largely light industry until the mid ’80s, a lot of auto shops and service-oriented light industry you typically saw in inner cities. As the big redevelopment moves came in, it changed the land uses and use identities of the neighborhood but the public realm didn’t change. All the roads are still too wide, the sidewalks are too narrow, there are very few street trees. The things you might typically associate with a mixed-use community where people live, work, and visit are missing.

We realized that the public realm needed to catch up with the new identity that was created through all these redevelopment efforts but that a big move in the public realm wasn’t really what was needed, or even appropriate. A better strategy would be a lot of small moves that were more tactical and that incrementally could add up and make a big overall change in the community. What was interesting is that this was a community design initiative. It’s a non-profit, community benefits district that the residents within this community approved to establish. There’s a tax they impose upon themselves. That money goes to the benefit district and then back into their community. This public realm improvement plan was a community design initiative so we did a lot of community workshops to identify what is important to the people living there, what their values are, what their problems are, and what they wanted to do about it. Many of the ideas came directly from the community, and the goals were things that were obvious: We want it to be safer, look better, cleaner. We want to have wider sidewalks.

The project ended up being a long-term, 10-year plan that has about 36 projects, which can be implemented as funding and partnerships become available. For each of the projects, we generated a budget and a potential partnership model — in terms of who the CBD might partner up with — to generate the funds to do the project, and then a schedule for what the fundraising program and implementation might look like. They now have a big, flexible tool that allows them to prioritize and re-prioritize all of these projects over the years.

We just finished the plan in the summer. We’ve implemented two of the very small projects already, and we’re now working at a couple of other ones that are going to get implemented in the next six months. In the meantime, fundraising is ongoing for some of the larger ones, including street closures and new plazas. The hope is that all the little things, all the small projects, can add up and lead to bigger change. It’s less about remaking this district and more about adding onto it, building on the identity that’s there. Through a more organic process of accrual and small scale change, the district can have a bigger change in the long term.

In Glendale, Arizona, a nine-acre organic farm and market plaza are being incorporated into the new 60-acre Bethany Central Business District. The farm will provide food for a central market and nearby restaurants. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor, however, recently came out against urban agriculture of this scale, arguing that these projects actually lower density. What do you see as the benefits of urban agriculture?

Urban agriculture can put the production of food closer to the place where it’s consumed, reduce food miles, and cut the carbon footprint of food production. Given the way the big agricultural industries work, agriculture is not the most sustainable practice. By doing it on a more small scale, you have the opportunity to do it more intensively and more sustainably on a local basis. But I think there’s a couple of other points in your question on density. Glendale is a very low density suburb outside of Phoenix. It’s a first generation suburban subdivision that might have a density of four dwelling units per acre, and it’s surrounded by cotton fields, which is a really unsustainable agricultural industry out in the desert. Cotton requires a lot of water.

On an 80-acre site, this project puts in about 250 or 300 dwelling units at a density of about 30 to the acre. It’s not dense like New York City, but it’s a huge density increase for this part of town. It puts in a lot of office space and open space, which is this farm. The project is the catalyst for an urban center in this growing suburban community. The hope is that doing something that incrementally increases density will become a kind of catalyst for more redevelopment. This is a huge step in the right direction compared to what’s there.

The other point to make is that all open space is theoretically a reduction in density, but we all agree that open space – parks – is necessary. What the agricultural park at Glendale is trying to do, and the CBD is trying to do, is to say, Let’s make the open space productive. We believe that we can hybridize the other open space functions: recreation, beauty, a place for people to socialize. We believe we can hybridize those into a purposeful landscape that is both ecological, in terms of its infrastructure, and productive, in terms of growing food for people. That’s what we’re really interested in: trying to get more value out of the open space we’re creating. We’re basically taking away from places where you could otherwise put buildings. It’s more of a comprehensive strategy.

Through a series of trusses, set over an incredibly steep site, the new UCSF Institute of Regenerative Medicine building makes amazing use of a site thought to be “unbuildable.” The building itself got a lot of attention, but many missed that it also includes a half-acre of wild flower and native grass-covered green roof terraces. CMG used an ecological approach mirroring coastal bluff systems. Can you talk about the design of the green roofs? Also, so far, how have the green roofs contributed to the actual research conducted in the building?

We did the concept through design development. Because it was a design-build project, they brought in a different build team. They had to bring in another landscape architect, which was the Guzzardo Partnership. So they did the detailed design and implementation and there’s another person to credit here. The design, as it got built, obviously, evolved so it’s not really the same as what we initially designed. We wanted to create an ecological green roof that was less controlled and allowed to change as a response to natural forces. We would start the landscape and then allow the ecological conditions of the roof to inform how the landscape evolved over time. We were looking at things like how does decomposition occur. For example, there’s a fallen tree and the log begins to decompose. Other ecologies emerge out of that. We were interested in trying to initiate some of those processes and then stand back and just let those happen, and see what kind of landscape emerges out of that.

We thought there would be a compelling relationship between the sciences and landscape in that the researchers would appreciate watching the processes happening out in the landscape. As it turns out, probably through budget cuts and value engineering, it’s a much more simplified landscape, where it’s essentially big terraces that are hydro-seeded with mixes of native grasses and other types of plants with pathways and little patios and places for people to sit and stuff. It’s actually quite beautiful.

A lot of the research labs have windows that look right out across these landscaped terraces. Those are probably of great value to the people in those buildings because they get to look at that space and also move out into these series of terraces associated with each of the lab pods. But the original idea that we had, and maybe you could argue it’s still there, is to instill this appreciation for ecological processes using a low maintenance or non-maintained landscape. I think what’s there is a little less poignant than what we had originally intended.

Mint Plaza in San Francisco, which recently won a smart growth award from the E.P.A., not only transformed an unused alley into a new public space, but also incorporates some smart green infrastructure. How do the systems function? How well do they perform in comparison with other types of green infrastructure?

The system that we developed deals with stormwater runoff. We developed the system with Sherwood Engineers, a civil engineering group in San Francisco. It’s a large infiltration basin that sits under the plaza, captures all the runoff, and allows it to infiltrate into the ground before it goes into the storm drain system. We are fortunate to have a pretty sandy soil condition there so the infiltration rate is quite high. We’re able to capture everything up to a five-year storm event before anything overtops and goes into the storm drain system. In the four years since the project has been built, I don’t think that any water has discharged into the storm drain system yet. That’s a big deal in this part of San Francisco because we have a combined sewer overflow system where the stormwater in a big event goes to the sewage treatment plant. Then, in a larger event, the stormwater quantity becomes more than the treatment plant can handle so stormwater, combined with sewage, is mixed and discharged in an untreated way, deep out into the ocean, which is just terrible.


Systems like this are really important where we have old combined sewer overflow systems. It’s a good example of how smaller individual infrastructure pieces can contribute to the bigger picture. It’s why every little bit counts. We need to go after these things pretty aggressively as if they are required urban infrastructure like fire hydrants.

We were fortunate on a project like Mint Plaza. It’s a big plaza so we’re able to utilize a fairly large area under the plaza to treat the stormwater. We make a positive contribution but even the smaller streetscape stormwater projects really add up. I anticipate that we’ll just see those as the norm in cities in the next 10 or 20 years.

The SFMoMA Rooftop Sculpture Garden extends the exhibits outdoors and features garden walls and other natural elements. The garden also includes unique textural elements, like a lichen-covered wall. Why did you use lichen? On your website, you write: “By planting a lichen wall, we take a bullish position on improving air quality.” Can you explain that story?

The sculpture garden was a competition we did with Jensen Architects. They invited us to join their team. When we were in the early stages of the competition, we realized that it’s not a really big area, only about 16,000 square feet. Their program for art was pretty all consuming. What they really needed was a big outdoor gallery that would give them a lot of flexibility for putting sculptures and different types of art in there. They wanted as much flexibility as they possibly could get because they didn’t want to limit what artists in the future could do. Their need was really for a big outdoor gallery, or a big box, that allowed them maximum flexibility.

But we really wanted it to be a garden. To us, a garden meant a few things. It meant that there was a increased connection between the people that would be visiting or using the space, the art, and the nature, the forces of nature. To us, that meant it should be about the passsage of time. A garden brings a sense of change and temporality. That was important to us. It should be about beauty and explore how to control or not control nature. Those are all the cultural aspects that make gardens so compelling and essential for our civilization.


The idea of lichen came about because lichen is very slow growing. We became interested in it because it’s kind of the antithesis of the art world, where everything is very fast, immediate, and available to you right away, for the most part. We thought where everything is so fast, where you’re so quick to consume it, we would do something that was really slow. It was essentially a slow garden. It would be something we would start but you would really have to wait for literally hundreds of years before it fully grew in. It was all about the potential of the lichen.


People were pretty excited about the idea of the lichen during the competition phase. We had done some Internet research and found someone who claimed they had propagated lichen, so it all seemed pretty straightforward. After we won the competition we came to realize that our Internet source was bogus, and in fact no one had actually propagated lichen before, so we had to admit that we didn’t know if it was possible or not. Fortunately, SFMOMA is a fantastic client, and they were still interested in the idea, so we commissioned a lichenologist named Tim Milliken and a researcher, Elise Brewster, to work with us to find a way to cultivate lichen.  We collected samples and made hundreds of tests with different formulas applied to all different base materials and put under different sun and moisture conditions. After a year we finally got some tiny specs of life in some of the samples, and that was enough for SFMOMA to give us the green light.

On day one of the garden, we inoculated the walls with this organism. It’s really one of the organisms that first colonizes places where nothing else is growing. As the lichen grows, it begins to gather a little bit of dirt, that then grows a little bit of moss, that then eventually gathers more dirt, that then, maybe a plant will colonize in there, so it’s an early colonizer. We liked that idea of the slowness, the fact that you can’t control it, you just have to kind of watch it. It’s an experiment and conceptually interesting at the same time.

What’s interesting is that lichen does not exist in cities for a couple of reasons. Things are power washed and always cleaned so the lichen is erased before it has a chance to really take hold, perhaps with the exception of places that are really neglected, and then you might see it take hold. Lichen also doesn’t grow where there’s poor air quality. In some cities, they map what they call lichen islands. They’ll take lichen panels or stones that have lichen on them and put them on roofs of buildings and see over time if the lichen actually survives. So for our project, we are optimistic that the air quality will remain good enough that it’s suitable for this lichen to grow long term. You have to be optimistic to be in this profession anyway, but the idea of planting something that may not be visible for a decade, and not really highly visible for 100 years, is a new level of optimism in garden design.

Your firm is also known for creating innovative urban spaces, like the Brainwash Plaza, a kind of parklet, and new parkmobiles that are part of the Yerba Buena street-life plan. Do you have any anecdotal evidence or even data on how these new types of mini parks are performing?

I don’t have any data, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence. San Francisco has a parklet program now. There are now probably 10 or 12 of these small parklets in the city. Most people really like them. The communities and the business owners that are sponsoring them in front of their businesses or properties like them. Of course, you know, not everybody likes them. Especially in the blog world, there’s always to be plenty of people who hate things. Some say there’s a sort of a risk by going too far with these short-term temporary landscapes, especially when they cost a lot. The argument is why not just spend that money and do it permanently or aggregate the money that you’re going to spend on 10 little things and do one bigger thing? That’s a risk, for sure, but I think what we’ve come to appreciate is that you need to do it at all scales and all levels.

The smallest things, incrementally, add up, accrue, and begin to make a big change. We’re definitely not advocating to replace the permanent, larger improvements with the temporary and small. We’re just saying, let’s do it all. The benefit of doing small and temporary things is that they can get approved really quickly. These are some of the things we’ve done in the Yerba Buena district, which is where the parkmobiles are. In fact, at the launch of the street-life plan at the SPUR Urban Center, which is in the district, we had an opening exhibition. As part of the exhibition, we installed a bench and attached it to the front of their building, facing the sidewalk. There’s really very little seating in that block. It’s about a 15-foot long bench that spans across their glass storefront building. We did it in a way where we could unbolt it and take it away. They didn’t have to consider that much in terms of allowing us to do it because it was a very small commitment on their part. As soon as we put that bench in for the exhibition, people immediately started gathering on it, and now, in front of the SPUR Urban Center, there’s people hanging out. Almost any time when you go by there during the day, there’s people sitting on this bench. It’s fantastic and they love it so they’ve decided to keep it as a permanent or, at least, semi-permanent thing. It just goes to show that the littlest things all make a difference. They all really add up.

The Parkmobiles are trying to do that in a similar way. They’re really low cost. They’re basically custom dumpsters that cost, believe it or not, about 3,000 bucks built to your specs, so they’re really economical. You still have to fill it up with dirt and plants. There are six of them. They move around the district every month or two. They show up in a new location. They’re meant to be an amenity and an improvement in terms of creating a place to sit, fostering social interaction, creating some beauty on the street, but they’re also trying to be sort of provocative at the same time by being fun, catchy, and getting people to talk about these issues. Instead of parking a car there, there’s a bench with plants. Isn’t that nice? Maybe we should be thinking about how much space parking is taking up in our communities and discussing whether that is the highest priority or the right allocation for that public space. Gee, there’s other things that we could be doing with that public space, other than storing private cars there on the public right of way. To answer your question, we really believe the mini parks and parkmobiles are effective. They are causing change for the better.


Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Kevin Conger / CMG Landscape Architecture, (2) Bethany Central Business District / Will Bruder + Partners, (3) Mint Plaza / CMG Landscape Architecture, (4) Mint Plaza / Sharon Risedorph, (5) SFMoMA Rooftop Sculpture Garden / Jensen Macy Architects, (6) Lichen close-up / CMG Landscape Architecture, (7) Parkmobiles / Julio Duffoo

Interview with Martha Schwartz


Martha Schwartz, FASLA, is president of Martha Schwartz Partners and professor of landscape architecture practice at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her most recent book is Recycling Spaces: Curating Urban Evolution: The Work of Martha Schwartz Partners.

In 2008, you wrote in BBC News that “landscape architects lag behind architects in the conversation around sustainability” and are relegated to dealing with green roofs. Almost four years later, do you still think this is true?

Definitely not as true. There has been a real ascendancy of the profession. We are now being recognized as able to lead urban-scale design and planning efforts, to define the issues, generate strategies for what needs to be done in the structuring and enabling of the project, set the environmental agenda, and then create the structure for community engagement. Of course, we are also able to bring this more strategic level of thinking into a physical design. We are often brought in advance of the architects since our agenda does not necessarily include building buildings. Clients feel more secure knowing that it is not a forgone conclusion that complex urban issues do not always resolve in buildings.  We now able to organize larger teams to tackle these complicated issues that cities have.

Right now, people are not that interested in building iconic buildings. They’re trying to figure out how to fix, expand, shrink or build their city. We are the profession most able to synthesize the many different systems that make a city work. As informed generalists, we can handle a huge amount of information across many topics and still come to a conclusion about what needs to happen.

The process is more open-ended and more collective. A site has a finite environmental holding capacity. Based on what those constraints are that are generated by the environment, the next series of “systems” that must be considered is what I call the “soft” systems – the social, cultural, and economically-based systems. All of these forces are played out upon the urban landscape. Cities are growing and so are now becoming a major environmental issue. We can build them so they are a positive effect on our global environment or we can build them so they are a detriment. So the topic of the urban landscape is becoming very urgent and important.

In the same article you call for a focus on the “softer side of sustainability,” which involves developing more sustainable communities where there’s a “sense of place, identity, and belonging.” One way to do this is “careful and inspired design which can make all the difference between a place that is viewed as no real significance to anyone and a place that attracts people creates vitality and is cherished by its inhabitants.” Do you think more communities have been getting the message?

I know that a few larger American cities are, but in general, I don’t think the U.S. has really gotten to this point. America has had an uneasy relationship with cities. The Europeans have lived in dense cities historically and therefore have been aware of the value of making their cities attractive for a long time. But even cities in developing countries understand that to attract people they need to make their cities attractive. Yes, insight is playing out around the world.

But for most Americans, the idea that sustainability is linked to the way our environment looks is a stretch. However, there is much scientific evidence now that proves that the quality of our physical environment has psychological and emotional impacts upon us. We are working on a hospital in Vienna where the landscape is incorporated into the financial pro-forma of the operation of the hospital. They know that if they build landscapes that the patients enjoy then they can move the patients out more quickly. In the U.S., physical design is viewed as “non-functional” and seen as just a cherry on top of the cake. It is a mystery to me why this close relationship between what something looks like and its value is not more fully appreciated by Americans.  It is understandable when it comes to electronics, cars or fashion, but when this is applied to cities people generally go blank.

The “softer side of sustainability” is just my way of saying that the urban landscape is not only about technical or science-based systems. The urban landscape is greatly shaped and organized and enables what people think, feel, and do. To design in the city, there must be a recognition of ALL the systems, the natural and the people systems that must be accounted for. A project designed without an understanding of these domains will not be able to resolve a landscape that is balanced, nor will it last long. One definition of sustainability is that something will have longevity. Longevity in the urban environment can only be achieved if people value it. If people value something, they will tend to invest in it and keep it. It becomes important to them and therefore sustains. But things and places that are not valued or attractive to people in some way, become degraded, and will eventually fail.

What design can do is create streets, spaces, and neighbourhoods that attract people. Everybody knows you pay more money to be in nice places and that almost everybody wants to be in beautiful environments. Beautiful environments and cities create desirability. This desirability creates value. People invest both economically and emotionally. The DESIGN and functionality of a city cannot and should not be seen as separate factors. Design does function on many levels. Without it, one cannot really create a liveable city and cannot compete in a globalized world.

In one session at the annual meeting, you said, “Green roofs are nice, but what about sustainable cities?” At Harvard, where you teach in the School of Design, you founded the Working Group for Sustainable Cities, an interdisciplinary group of professors who are focused on urban sustainability. Bringing in lots of different academic fields must be interesting. How does that change the conversation? What are the toughest issues limiting sustainable urban development according to this group?

We are still in the business of formulating exactly how we’re going to apply our collective knowledge and expertise. We hosted a series of lunches for local mayors around Boston that we ran as a fact-finding mission. We learned about the many dire issues cities are facing today.

Although many of the cities differed in specifics, in general, all the cities are hampered by money. Yet they still have to take care of the basics, while trying to plan for their future. They need to upgrade themselves so that they keep their people, their tax base, and attract businesses.

These “Mayors Luncheons,” hosted by the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government have been very valuable. Not only are we learning what we can do as a group, but we’re also learning what we need to be teaching our students so they can learn how to approach sustainability at a city scale. There is a great deal of information and expertise to be shared.

For teaching landscape architects we can learn to discover what the issues really are, such as how do cities operate, how do politics affect and shape environmental and economic issues? Landscape architects are being taught how to think about, define, and solve urban issues and still design them to be wonderful and valued parts of the city.

In another lecture, you seem very pessimistic about the ability of Americans to connect with “real” nature, particularly in cities, arguing that “nature today is a commodity that is inserted in bits and pieces into an environment that is itself a constructed product of our will. It does what we want and sadly all we want is to enjoy the view without being inconvenienced.” Are you still pessimistic? Do you think that values are shifting towards protecting and reinvesting in nature with the younger generation?

I think that’s a wrong read. I’m not pessimistic, I am realistic. People are eager to connect with nature. Our issue is that we do not see with honesty HOW we are building the landscape in our cities. IF it is not natural, then it goes un-regarded. We Americans love nature and our national parks. We love nature, but what we don’t love is all the built landscape that we live and work in. We don’t plan our cities so nature can play a role in it. We don’t invest our money in urban landscapes because they cost a lot of money and must be planned well in advance. We don’t vote for taxes to maintain our landscapes. But the reality is that we build our landscapes and build them cheaply and without much ambition for them. Look at the landscape environment of our strips — all that in-between landscape between the gas station, the big-box developments. It is why most American cities are unattractive. We Americans have used up a great deal of our nature indiscriminately as it is viewed as a unlimited resource while still loving it at the same time.

We carry a nature myth within us as Americans. We love nature as wilderness but we don’t love any built, constructed environment as it falls outside our idealized picture of nature. There’s a great divide between what people consider to be landscapes of value and landscapes that are not valued. Once a landscape has been manipulated, it has no value. So we don’t bring our resources to it. Codes that might demand a higher quality for its planning, design, and execution have resulted in a tremendous, almost wall-to-wall visual degradation of our environment. Through demonstration, we have built our environment through an ethos that says, “If it’s not nature, we don’t care about it.” That’s what really pains me. Our abundance of nature has provided us too much of a good thing and we have used it indiscriminately. Our ability to sprawl and use our landscape in a wasteful and neglectful way will ultimately has already greatly diminished what was a very beautiful country. Our landscape is a natural resource that is limited and has value. It must be viewed in that way.

My frustration is that people don’t understand or accept the notion that we build and therefore shape our environment. We build our landscape like we build our buildings so that we could live in it. It’s a built artifact and, as such, we should be thinking more critically about how we design it. Our landscapes are our streets, sidewalks, median strips, train corridors, highway right-of-ways, parking lots, on and off ramps, the back alleyways– all that leftover space has been chopped up by roads and highways. We’ve built most of our constructed landscapes very carelessly and without real investment. Now most of us have to pass through miles and miles of degraded, ugly, and dispirited open spaces, which comprise our urban and suburban landscapes.

In recent years, you’ve been creating large-scale master and landscape plans in United Arab Emirates and Qatar. For Qatar Petroleum, you proposed a “verdant green oasis landscape” in the desert. What are the long-term sustainability issues involved in creating water-intensive developments in desert ecosystems?

In most countries, outside the United States, you can’t build landscapes that are not carefully calculated to be able to survive on the water systems that are being produced within nearby buildings. We would never actually build anything that required more water than what we actually generate on-site. So if readers are viewing this as an unsustainable landscape, it’s a misunderstanding of that plan.

We used planting in areas that both were shaded by the buildings, where there would be less transpiration, and in areas where most people would be. Where there would be little use by people, it feathered out into an absolutely arid landscape. We used the same principles in our design for the Abu Dhabi Corniche where we designed to the strict regulations required for Estidama, the UAE’s tight standards for sustainability in the landscape.

One of your projects for the late ’90s, the Geraldton Mine Project, is a bold example of how to turn a degraded landscape into an economic and cultural asset. Beyond simply creating a beautiful land form, you also restored soils, re-vegetated, and created trails in an effort to lure tourists to a small town in Ontario. Does this site serve as a model for restoration for the thousands of mining sites throughout the world? What have been the challenges to scaling up this kind of approach? Why hasn’t it happened more?

That’s a very good question. We have worked on three mining sites, all of which have created a regeneration of those sites and their surroundings. It’s an incredibly robust model for how to re-use a degraded landscape so it can be productive again. The issue with Geraldton, a very small post-mining town, is that it had run out of its economy. Post-mining, what remained was a devastated landscape and an environmentally toxic landscape. The only way the town could figure out how to survive was to try to capture the people travelling on the Trans-Canadian Highway and get them to stop. But, of course, as you were passing through this area, you would just put the pedal-to-the-metal to get out of there as quickly as possible.

The idea was to take the huge pile of mining tailings and reshape them into something that was not the natural landscape so that it contrasted with the natural landscape, which is very flat and monotonous. The concept was to take the tailings and sculpt them to create land art. As a result, people did stop. They wondered, “What is this?” or “What’s happening here?” People would slow down to explore and come into the town. As a result of capturing some of their economy, they continued to develop the other parts of the site into a golf course that generated more economy and so it started to generate a new economy.


There aren’t that many who understand that the landscape, the earth, trees could be seen as an artistic medium, like a box of paints. You have beautiful, living and inanimate materials, and one can create something that has cultural resonance. The narrative or idea can be about anything. All great art is, essentially, a very personal statement or inquiry. A built landscape is not required to look or mimic nature. If we are creating it, like any other cultural art form, it can be what we wish it to be. There’s no law that says it has to look like nature. What if all the books or movies or plays were about one subject matter or were dictated by the government? It would be stopping the evolution of culture. Without realizing it, people have very clear notions of what a landscape should be, while we’re much more open about what a building can be because we know it’s a cultural artifact. But to most in the U.S., a landscape must represent nature or the process of nature. I strongly disagree with this didactic view of how our landscape must be designed. It is a narrow view. Because in our cities, in the places we make for ourselves to live, the landscape could and should have cultural resonance and meaning. This is actually a necessity to making spaces that people will love and cherish and, ultimately, be sustained.

Also, do you know that the Sphinx is a mining site? That’s where they mined the stone for the pyramids. They just decided they didn’t want an ugly hole. They actually sculpted it and created art. It’s a wonderful example of what one can do with a quarry.

We worked in Winslow, New Jersey, on a clay quarry that had been a dump for 30 cars. It was a degraded and socially dangerous site. With the client, and an ecologist, we regenerated it so now it’s an informal nature conservancy. Now, people want to know if they can buy the land to develop it into housing (no). But the point is, that now, there is a whole new set of possibilities for the site and the town. We also worked in northern England in a small post-mining village so to help in the regeneration of the town. We provided a master plan for about 100 acres and then designed a village green on top of the filled-in mining shaft.

John Dixon Hunt, a landscape historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said your Exchange Square in Manchester is an example of how landscape artists can “transform history.” In this case, the site “designates a new boundary between modern and medieval.” What story do you think the plaza tells?

Wow. That’s a great compliment coming from John. Of course, I have my own narrative. I’m happy to tell you about it but it’s not important except for creating a way of directing the design concept as we developed it. What’s important is that there is enough visual content so that people can bring their own interpretation to a public space. There has to be a visual coherence that people “get” that there is a narrative of some sort; it needs to be able to be described and memorable. But is must also be open-ended so it is not prescribed or didactic. A space doesn’t work if you feel that the viewer must think and feel the same way you do or to “get” the story. I am not interested in those types of spaces and, frankly, I don’t think most people find them particularly interesting either. People like a mystery or riddle. And in order to make these spaces relevant to individuals, they need to be understood and appreciated in very personal terms. Allowing people to bring their own narratives to a space is a much richer source of narratives.

Our narrative was based upon knitting the city together after a bomb blast has made a hole in the city fabric. We spatially knitted the old cathedral district together with the more modernized shopping district. The yellow Yorkstone represented the historic district as this area was built upon a great geological outcropping of Yorkstone. The upper shopping district sat on a granite and glass plaza. They were stitched together along a “seam” of gentle ramps and linear benches.


Lastly, earlier in your career, you were known for your iconic, playful pop-art landscapes. My personal favorite is the Rio shopping center, using more than 350 golden frogs. But even your playful elements are often geometrical, with an underlying logic. Can you talk about how you use humor to create compelling landscapes, and maybe geometry, too?

My humor is a personal thing. I come from a pretty funny family. It’s just the way I grew up. When I’m with my family, it’s hilarious. They’re really funny people, highly goofy. But humor can also be a very powerful weapon and means of conveying ideas that are uncomfortable to face head-on. If you listen carefully, most of the greatest comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor, are the angriest people ever. But what they say is very serious. The idea comedy or humor is not serious is really simple-minded. Behind their jokes are issues that are extremely serious and difficult to digest. But through their artistry they’re able to speak about these difficult issues and allow people to face them in a way that is much more acceptable. A fire-and-brimstone lecture ends to turn people off. Humor is a way of making medicine go down in a delightful way. It can deliver contentious and critical information in a stealth way. I use humour to disguise a difficult message. There is something there for everyone — for those who “see” it as well as those who don’t. They are at the same time funny and critical.   


We did this one installation in Bavaria. It was the garden of Baron Von Munchausen (the real person). We were free to do what we wanted however we weren’t allowed to alter the garden in a permanent way. The concept we had was to create an outdoor gallery exhibit from garden ornaments that people put in their gardens. Half of the 50 ornaments were from a U.S. garden shop and the other 25 ornaments from a German garden shop. I set them up on large white plinths, like you would see in a museum, which were arranged in a point grid. We cut the grass over the course of two months, which created a mown grid of grass about 5 meters wide. The objects on plinths were set at the intersections of the grass grid in the midst of very loosey-goosey, overgrown garden. There was the tire with the geraniums, American flags, the jockey holding a lamp, the wishing well, and the deck chair. It had all this stuff that underpins a billion-dollar industry. Gardening is the second-biggest hobby in American economy, worth billions of dollars. It reflects that values and aesthetics of our culture. We put these objects it in our gardens as a way of expressing what we wish others to see. The show was a cultural snapshot of the American and German cultures.

The contrast between all this junk we place in our gardens and the loveliness of this overgrown and lush garden was brutal. The curator from the Bielefeld Art Museum, who funded it, came up to me and said, “You’re really an angry person, aren’t you?” and I said, “Well, I’m glad somebody got it.” 

But most people loved it. They had fun.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Martha Schwartz / Image credit: Fennell Photography, (2) Exchange Square, Manchester, UK. Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners, (3) McLeod Tailings, Geraldton, Canada / Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners, (4) Exchange Square, Manchester, UK Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners, (5) Rio Shopping Center, U.S.A. / Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners, (6) 51 Garden Ornaments, Germany / Image credit: Martha Schwartz Partners

Why Use Ipe When You Can Have Black Locust?

Black Locust planks. ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. Small is Beautiful. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and his fellow speakers got multiple rounds of spontaneous applause at the 2011 ASLA annual meeting for hosting a session on a topic near and dear to many design professionals and wood experts: how to end the unsustainable harvesting of ipe wood and scale up the use of sustainable alternatives. The real alternative may be black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), which Van Valkenburgh and other progressive landscape architects, architects, engineers, and wood manufacturers have already been using for some time.

In addition, domestically-grown black locust may offer new opportunities for local sustainable forestry businesses. The trees grow fast and are hardy (in fact, in many areas, they are treated as invasives) and can even take root in urban areas. So they could provide a new source of employment in cities like Cleveland and Detroit, where populations are collapsing and landscapes aren’t as productive as they could be.

Ipe is a tropical hardwood often used in outdoor decks and furniture because it’s so resilient to rain, insects, and weather changes. Its special properties also mean that it lasts a long time. However, there is a dark side to this wood, which is all too often still used in park and residential projects. Just a few ipe trees are found per acre in dense, lush tropical forests, which means foresters must wreck havoc on the forest to extract and process those single old trees. Van Valkenburgh and others argue there must be better alternatives.

Why Black Locust?

Stephen Noone, ASLA, senior associate, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, said black locust lasts just as long as ipe. He said it’s a “pioneering, not invasive” plant that “takes root on sites that other plants don’t like.” Unlike ipe, the tree grows together in densely planted areas. In Europe and Asia, it’s already treated as an acceptable crop. In fact, a number of countries are moving forward with planting large groves for wood production, a business that, oddly, has failed to take root in the U.S.

A research project by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ interns found a plantation in Hungary producing a range of different quality black locust woods, including top quality woods. They found that black locust can “only be planted in marginal areas where oak can’t be established.” In a smart move, a local forestry research organization and local wood producers afforested a massive area. Now, 8,500 hectares of dense black locust forests are being harvested in one area there.

Black locust has “high natural durability, is heavy and hard, but has a tricky kiln drying process,” said Noone. It’s “not going to rot and is insect resistant.” Noone delved into the details of moisture content, and the process needed to achieve the desired content levels. There is a complex multi-step process that involves letting the freshly cut wood air-dry to reduce moisture and then using a “dehumidifier kiln.” Noone said “the process is very strict,” and “diligence is required on the part of the drier.” There’s also a long lead time for landscape architects: 40-50 days until the wood can be used. But it’s worth it: Beyond the sustainability benefits, black locust is also cost-effective. In bulk, it’s $5.44 per square foot, while ipe is more than $7 per square foot.

Black Locust planks. ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. Small is Beautiful. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

Building a Bridge in Brooklyn

A new pedestrian bridge made entirely of black locust and designed to move people from neighborhoods in Brooklyn into Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park is now taking shape. Ted Zolli, HNTB, said in this case, “black locust is better than concrete in terms of its compression, strength, and flexibility” and an “incredibly viable structural material.”

Walkway into Brooklyn Bridge Park, HNTB / Curbed NY

Zolli showed how timber bridges aren’t a new thing. Some 20 percent of current bridges are made up of wood and some are more than 100 years old. This 400-foot long bridge is comprised of pre-fabricated pieces created off-site and the delivered and installed in BK. Some parts of the bridge span 120 feet. All together, there’s about 30 tons of wood. He said for this gangway, black locust was the right way to go.

HNTB purposefully tested how vulnerable the wood is to fire and found that it doesn’t lose its strength as it burns. “It’s better than steel and will do better in a fire than the cable wires we are using.” For him and his firm, the real challenge was getting a hold of longer planks and finding the right connector systems for the bridge components.

The Properties of Black Locust

Don Lavender, Landscape Forms, a man Van Valkenburgh called a “national treasure,” discussed the opportunities and challenges in scaling up a domestic black locust industry. He said there is great potential for the tree in the U.S. but it’s about “obtaining prime examples and taking selections.” Lavender said the best trees are found in the Appalachian region.

Black locust was originally given to settlers by the government during the early expansion of the U.S. because it’s very fast growing. Within 15-20 years, the material can be cut down and burned. At 30 years old, it can be used for materials in homes. Lavender said the best of these trees “competed for sunlight with other trees.”

The tree can be used for many products, and even lesser-grade woods aren’t wasted. “100 percent of the tree can be purposefully used.” Lavender said lower grades can be used for mulch, biomass fuel, parquet, and greenhouse poles. The higher grades, #1 grade, premium and premium plus (the top 5 percent), are the result of a more challenging “kiln drying process” that requires “patience.” The wood is tough and resistant to drying for the “same reason it’s so resistant to decay.”

Once dried properly, it can easily be “cut, sawed, drilled, sanded, and shaped.” No outdoor finishes are needed and its screw retention is good. Its Janka hardness also compares favorably with other woods. At 1700, it’s better than red oak (1290), but a bit less than tropical hardwoods like jarrah (1910) and ipe (3684).  It’s also difficult to glue. But biologically, black locust is “remarkably decay resistant.”

Scaling up Cultivation and Production in the U.S.

Van Valkenburgh said the U.S. is falling further and further behind globally. “The country is losing its edge.” Currently, there are 5 million acres of black locust under cultivation worldwide, but “virtually zero in the U.S.” Korea has 1.2 million acres, China has another 1 million, while Hungary has 270,000 acres. “This is something that has the potential to be an economic engine in many parts of this country.”

Instead of being viewed as an invasive, as it is in many parts of the U.S., Van Valkenburgh said it should be grown in set-aside areas. Lavender added that the Amish, who “don’t waste anything,” has been using black locust for ages. The Amish, who have perfected techniques over generations, are in fact a perfect model for black locust production: “proper kiln drying is not something you just get into one day. It takes generations to learn this.” He added that a number of firms have “blundered into kiln drying” and ended up with kindling. “It needs to be done methodically” if an industry is going to bloom here.

Van Valkenburgh is currently using black locust imported from Hungary. A firm in Massachusetts is importing containers from Hungary and “taking it upon themselves” to expand the domestic market. While using this wood puts him out of the 500 mile range the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) calls for in sourcing sustainable materials, he said “we have to think bigger about sustainability. The lifespan of these woods is several multiples higher than others.” Still, he wants to see the woods grown domestically.

The black locust market in the U.S. is “still in its infancy” despite the advocacy efforts of Van Valkenburgh and others. Hopefully, some smart city officials will see an opportunity. As one audience member said, Detroit and other cities could not only turn their abandoned lots into forests, but black locust forests. Van Valkenburgh went even further: “Planting on reclaimed sites is a great idea.”

Van Valkenburgh, Noone, Zolli, and Lavender kindly shared their 84-page presentation (8MB) full of rich content, photos, and data. Download and help spread the word.

Achieving Net-Zero Residential Landscapes


Net-zero water use is a tangible strategy for creating integrated systems that minimize the impact of our landscape designs on precious water resources. At the 2011 ASLA Annual Meeting, Bobby Markowitz, ASLA, Earthcraft Landscape Design, Marilyn Crenshaw, AIA, The Green Architect, and Bill Wilson, Environmental Consultant at Carlile Macy, presented straightforward strategies for understanding and achieving net zero.

There are typically three sources of water available on a property: potable (municipal) water, rainwater, and graywater. Potable water is energy intensive to collect, treat, and deliver, and the environmental repercussions of its extraction can be devastating. Rainwater is delivered directly to the site free of charge and can often be employed for potable uses (with some form of sterilization, depending on codes). Graywater is water used in household fixtures such as sinks and laundry machines (excluding unsanitary blackwater) and can be reused for irrigation in the landscape. If primary sewage treatment occurs onsite, treated blackwater is also a potential source for irrigation.

Net-zero water use in this context refers to the efficient use of rainwater and graywater onsite, such that the demand for potable water is reduced or eliminated altogether. According to Bobby Markowitz, ASLA, Earthcraft Landscape Design, the heart of net-zero is a simple equation: make demand equal supply. “That’s how you get to net-zero.” In order to do this, the designer must quantify all sources of water and all water losses occurring on the property and then design an integrated water management system that captures water and uses (and reuses) it in the household and landscape.

“The first thing I look at is calculating roof runoff,” said Markowitz, “then I consider storage capabilities.” The amount of rainwater that can be harvested from a building can easily be calculated by multiplying the area of the roof by the average amount of rain for the region (adjusting for units of course). The same is true for any impermeable surface that water can be collected from. Following that,  above and below ground storage opportunities such as tanks and cisterns can be investigated.

A little more research is required for the other parts of the equation. There are a couple of strategies that can be used to grasp the water demand of a household. One is to use flow meters, which can measure the amount of water flowing out to irrigation. The other is to look at the water bills. “Interior use is basically the same all year,” said Markowitz. The spike in the summer is irrigation (note: this session was California-based, and water use will vary by climate). The potential amount of graywater produced can be understood by looking at the number and types of fixtures and their average use. 

Once potential onsite water capture and household use are estimated, an equation is created, and the task becomes to “tweak demand to make it equal to the supply.” If rainwater can be used in the interior, then household water use can be subtracted from rainwater on the supply side. The rainwater left over plus graywater is then available for landscape requirements, which can be adjusted through the plant palette as well as by improving irrigation efficiency. Markowitz recommended a number of methods for improving irrigation efficiency, including the use of subsurface capillary irrigation and smart controllers that sense soil moisture or estimated evapotranspiration rates. Designing the integrated water management system, which includes the various water sources and uses, requires careful orchestration of numerous components, including storage, pumps, filters, and some specialized plumbing.

While recent progress has been made to codify these types of water use, achieving net zero in residential landscapes often necessitates working closely with public officials so that progressive strategies will be embraced. Marilyn Crenshaw, AIA, The Green Architect, recounted a project that involved the integration of rainwater, graywater, blackwater, and green roof systems. She said her success depended on the approval of numerous agencies, including planning, public health, public works, and the fire marshall. Crenshaw recommended making personal contact with local officials, listening to their concerns, and learning how to speak their language. Crenshaw also suggested that net-zero designers can make the most of restrictive codes and even get credit for voluntary rating systems. For instance, the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) has a requirement to reduce potable water use for landscape irrigation by fifty percent from established baselines. Net-zero strategies can reduce potable water use by 100 percent.

The environmental benefits of net-zero water use are significant. Bill Wilson, Environmental Consultant at Carlile Macy, is motivated by his observations while conducting oceanic research. He has found that massive amounts of small plastic debris are entering the ocean and being consumed as plankton. The source of this plastic is primarily urban wastewater and runoff. Wilson noted that wastewater can be treated by bacteria in soil, but the ocean is not very well equipped to process and decompose urban waste. “My goal is to get this wastewater out of the ocean and onto the land where it belongs,” he said.

Landscape architects and architects can use water-related environmental problems such as reservoir depletion to inspire clients who may be interested in net zero water use to take action. However, Markowitz noted that return on investment calculations, which are often used to sell sustainable technologies such as alternative energy, do not work very well with water. This is because “water is such an undervalued resource.” The price of water does not sufficiently reflect its growing scarcity or the embedded costs of public infrastructure. However, as Markowitz said, “if you want to know the value of water, try not having any.” Wilson said that clients will be motivated by knowing that they will have a secure water supply in an emergency situation while their neighbors are helpless – which he calls “the smugness factor.”

While it may not always be possible to achieve net-zero water use at a site, it is certainly a worthy goal to make the most of our precious water resources. Furthermore, looking closely at the numbers and thinking of the landscape as a component of an overall water equation provides a pragmatic and powerful tool for quantifying the landscape’s role in sustainability. It is also an opportunity to expand the role of the designer, as net-zero residential water use requires the integration of landscape architecture, architecture, and the various trades. Increasing water scarcity, like global climate change, needs to become a rallying point for the various disciplines to come together and look at projects as holistic systems that are connected to the broader ecological systems we all rely on.

This guest post is by Dakotah Bertsch, Associate ASLA, Design Associate, Design Ecology

Image credit: Rain on vegetation / Flickr

Wild for the City


With human populations becoming more and more dense and ecological systems declining, urban nature parks present a potent opportunity to meet both the emotional and ecological needs of cities. Nature parks are needed to provide opportunities for people to connect to nature while also providing real environmental services. At the 2011 ASLA annual meeting, Laura Starr, ASLA, AIA, Starr Whitehouse, said that for urban parks, “every inch that’s not a ball field” needs to be handling stormwater, providing critical habitat, or otherwise performing ecologically. However, especially in the urban environment where landscapes must consider multiple types of use, wild parks cannot simply be hands-off preserves. They require mechanisms for maintenance, collaboration, and community outreach. Starr and Claire Beyer, LEED AP, Project Coordinator and Resource Specialist at Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, discussed some of the challenges and successes they have experienced while working with urban wilds. 

Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. As Laura Starr said, “If you don’t have a way to maintain something, you probably shouldn’t do it.” Starr, formerly Chief of Design for the Central Park Conservancy, which manages Central Park under contract from the City of New York, talked about her experiences with various Central Park projects. Central Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to embody rugged, picturesque, and pastoral qualities. Entering Central Park, the visitor is “put on this path… like a journey,” said Starr, and the environment “feels like being in the Adirondacks.” However, even when Central Park was first created it was necessary to employ patrols to protect this experience from misuse by the public. As the City has grown up and surrounded the Park, continued adaptations have been necessary to maintain the park while meeting the changing needs of the population.  

Within Central Park, the Harlem Meer is a water body that recently underwent a renovation. Originally designed to refer to a rugged and picturesque pond surrounded by a few meandering paths that allowed intimate access to quiet scenes, the Meer had later been modified by Robert Moses – the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York City – to deal with increased population pressures as the neighborhood grew up around it. Moses simplified the edge of the waterfront, doubled the number of paths circumnavigating the water, and fenced off turf areas to keep people on paths and protect the natural elements. Years later, the result was a disconnected, unwelcoming, and aesthetically unpleasant place that did not offer much to meet the City’s emotional or ecological needs.

In renewing the Harlem Meer, the challenge was to balance the desire to restore Olmsted’s original vision with the needs of the residents, which included amenities such as a restaurant. The resulting design combined the natural qualities of Olmsted’s plan with contemporary solutions to ensure safety while also enabling greater access to nature experiences. The shoreline was restored to a more natural state, allowing for increased water filtration and habitat, and now children are able to borrow free fishing poles from a Discovery Center to fish in the Meer. The site was transformed into an activated, positive space, but still requires vigilance to ensure that the place is not misused, such as by swimming. Even though they may seem wild, parks need to be treated as public facilities: “The same way that people know not to touch paintings in museums, people need to be told how to behave in urban parks,” said Starr.

Another example from within Central Park is the Great Lawn and the adjacent Turtle Pond, which were also recently restored by the Central Park Conservancy. The Great Lawn, a large oval of turf heavily used as a playing field and sunbathing area, was originally created by filling in and planting what had been the rectangular Croton Reservoir, leaving a small amorphous pond at the lower end – Turtle Pond. Over the years the turf suffered from its popularity. The restoration led by Starr and the Central Park Conservancy shifted the Great Lawn slightly north, updated the soil and underdrainage of the lawn to support continued heavy use, and enlarged and redefined Turtle Pond to enhance both the ecological function and the nature experience of visitors. Turtle Pond now features emergent vegetation, abundant wildlife, and a nature blind for visitors to experience “nature.” Nature is in the eye of the beholder, of course, for the entire setting is man-made. Starr pointed to features such as the created island within the pond, which is covered with emergent vegetation and looks quite wild and said, “Central Park is so established that people think whatever is in there is nature, not something that is evolving and needs planning and maintenance.” The Great Lawn employs a number of strategies to “protect nature from people,” including a red flag system that prevents damage to sensitive areas such as wet spots after a rain, and monitors who gently remind people of rules such as no dogs on the lawn.

In addition to the large investments necessary to restore and maintain public nature parks, mechanisms for collaboration between public and private organizations enable the quality of ongoing care that is needed in these situations. Battery Bosque is a 3.75-acre section of Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan – “the most traveled park in New York City” because it is the launch point for ferries to tour the Statue of Liberty. Starr said that the previous Bosque was essentially “four acres of hardscape” that did not refer to nor do justice to the original beauty of the Hudson River, even though it is adjacent to the river. The park contrasted sharply with the lush imagery in paintings of the Hudson River School, and Starr noted that the natural abundance of Manhattan Island was responsible for the present density of the City. Therefore, in the renovation of the Bosque, which was a design collaboration with Piet Oudolf, Sarasota Associates, and Weisz + Yoes Studio, Starr said she decided to reverse the thinking about park design, first “painting it green,” then asking where paths were necessary. The result was a more natural and serene park setting, in which visitors can have a nature experience amid the bustle of the City. This redesign resulted in the need for more intense maintenance, which is performed through a collaboration between the Battery Conservancy and Parks and Recreation. “Nature parks cost a lot of money to maintain. They provide more benefits but need more care,” said Starr.

Claire Beyer, LEED AP, Project Coordinator and Resource Specialist at Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, built upon the themes of collaboration and maintenance by talking about her experiences collaborating on multi-agency efforts to redesign, restore, and maintain the parks of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). GGNRA parks are supported by a triad of interacting organizations: The Golden Gate Parks Conservancy, which is described as a community-supported non-profit; the Presidio Trust, which manages most of the Presidio portion of the GGNRA; and the National Park Service, which has ultimate jurisdiction over most of the GGNRA. Beyer characterized the GGNRA as a diverse system of very highly used parks in proximity to a large metropolitan area but nestled within smaller communities. She said that the challenge for these places has been designing “high-use parks for small communities.”

Beyer talked about the symbiotic relationship between the different organizations in providing for the needs of these parks, especially between the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service. Beyer said that the Conservancy has been instrumental in engaging communities surrounding the parks, raising money, and gathering and organizing volunteers. Education and stewardship have been the primary tools for engaging community members. The Park Service has supplied its vast resource of scientific knowledge, with specialists who have led the way in habitat restoration and resource conservation. One great example of successful community engagement and collaboration is Crissy Field, formerly an asphalt-covered airstrip, successfully restored to a park ten years ago. The new Crissy Field features a revitalized salt marsh, grassy fields, planted dunes and a shoreline promenade. In order to make this happen, the Conservancy raised more than $34.4 million in donations, and organized over 3,000 volunteers who helped plant 100,000 native plants.

Beyer also showed that many small parks within the GGNRA have been subject to recent improvements, both to restore and improve habitat for species of concern and to ensure that they are fit to handle increasingly high volumes of visitors. These small parks, such as Land’s End, Muir Beach, Lobos Creek Dunes, and Mori Point, are surrounded by small communities on the outside of the larger Bay Area. However their accessibility to large populations means they need to be built to handle many people. Beyer said that the old model for these places, as wild parks with only small informal trails, is no longer suitable. However, major infrastructural improvements such as trail widening, stabilization, and bridge installation, such as at Muir Beach, can be difficult changes for the small communities to accept.

Beyer said that one strategy of the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy to appease the communities has been to employ “project information coordinators” – representatives who are always on site during construction projects to explain the changes and field any questions from residents and tourists. The Conservancy also tries to educate and involve the community in a stewardship role so that they understand the ecological benefits and necessity of the improvements. The Saturday Volunteer Program, which has resulted in over 100,000 plants being planted, enables volunteers to be trained and also train others in restoration. Beyer said restoration work benefits communities in more than just educational, ecological and aesthetic ways as well. “When we restore these areas, we’re really activating them and bringing more people, thereby increasing safety.”

With increasing population pressures, urban parks cannot simply be created and left to fend for themselves as if they were remote wildernesses. Just as with other urban infrastructure, constant maintenance and periodic renovations are needed to ensure their continued function. More and more, these parks are needed in the urban environment, both to perform ecological services and to give residents a chance to experience nature and escape from the city. With that, greater public investment is direly needed to provide for their creation and maintenance. However, careful consideration of stewardship mechanisms is critical to the success of these parks, and should be weighed before decisions are made to create new green space. Laura Starr is concerned about ambitious park and green infrastructure creation programs such as in New York City. While she sees value in making the City “spongier,” to deal with water pollution problems, she asks, “If New York is planning to do all these bioswales and other projects in the public right of way, who is going to maintain them?”

This guest post is by Dakotah Bertsch, Associate ASLA, Design Associate, Design Ecology

Image credit: Land’s End, Golden Gate National Recreation Area / Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy