Nature and Structure Are One

When we think of paths through nature, we may first think of somewhat muddy trails carved out willy-nilly through the trees, covered in leaves. But a few landscape architects and architects have been showing how paths can be designed, set-apart, yet also enhance the experience of being surrounded by nature while carefully protecting natural habitat.

Reed Hilderbrand, a landscape architecture firm, created a narrow 2,700-foot wooden boardwalk through a previously “unreachable and unknowable” 50-acre wetland near their client’s house in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. While the path did cut through undisturbed nature, the idea was to create environmentally-sensitive access to improve the stewardship of the unexplored land, 70 percent of which was made up of re-growth forest.

To complement ongoing “woodlot management, edge restoration, and meadow extension” efforts, Reed Hilderbrand proposed a circuit trail that would loop through the wetland. It took nine months working with “conservation biologists, permit specialists, contractors, the property manager, and conservation commissioners to ensure adequate protection of the resource and mitigation of limited construction disturbance.” According to the firm, the only way the team could get permission was if there was a careful evaluation of the “hydrologic and biotic” characteristics of the site, low-impact construction technologies, and design elements that enhanced the wetland. 

“Path alignments were studied in plan from air and then thoroughly tuned on site to navigate among trees and snags, woody thickets, beaver impoundments, significant perennial stream courses, and wildlife corridors,” writes Reed Hilderbrand. Invasive species were removed, to the benefit of local flora and fauna. Overall, the new boardwalk actually supports local habitat: “Since completion, beneficial plant communities including speckled alder and silky dogwood have responded favorably, improving shade cover and food sources. A corresponding increase in wildlife has been observed.”

Another project, Stone River, in eastern New York state, uses stones instead of wooden boardwalks to create a subtle, new way to experience nature. Landscape architect Jon Piasecki, ASLA, Housatonic, writes: “I joined the path itself to the pre-existing stonewall and woods in an attempt to offer the visitor the opportunity to experience a sense of fusion with nature. The goal of this project is to join culture to nature.”

Piasecki, a master with stone, actually moved each stone down the path in a small wood cart and hammered each stone joint into place. “I transferred tens of tons of gravel and sand as a setting bed with a wheelbarrow and I moved nearly 400 tons of stone in the wall and as paving over the 800-foot length of the path. I opened the existing stonewall, chose the course of the path within it and rejoined the residual wall stone in such a way that the path appears to have grown organically within this stonewall where it resides. I was able to personally lay stones so as to avoid individual clumps of ferns, standing trees, fallen logs and existing stones with mossy growths in the wall.”

The silver stone (a mica schist) used in the project is a highly sustainable material because it will last so long. To further cut down on carbon dioxide emissions from the quarrying and cutting process, Piasecki used machines running on vegetable oils. 

The poetry of the landscape is only enhanced by Piasecki’s gentle intervention: “In this instance by joining stone and by making a path into the woods with great sensitivity, I am working to heal, in a small way, the rift between culture and nature that is intrinsic to our modern relationship to the land.”

Lastly, one Japanese architecture firm, Tetsuo Kondo Architects, wound a path through the tree tops in a temporary 3-month project in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia last summer. In the Kadriorg forest, which is located in the center of the city, trees have grown there for three centuries, around a palace built for the Czar of Russia. To provide a startling new look at the trees, a 95-meter-long elevated path was created.  

According to Landezine, the elevated path is made of steel pipe and sheet steel, with no columns touching the forest floor. In places, the paths seem to lean on trees for support (apparently, both the city’s park managers and structural engineers signed-off on this).

The architects write: “Instead of looking up at the trees from the ground, people will be strolling near the leaves, making their way between the branches. A structure made for the forest, a forest that exists for the structure. With no change in the shape of the forest, it will seem that the structure and the forest are one.” 

In these instances, man-made structures complement nature and even enhance the experience of being immersed in nature. These contemporary yet environmentally-sensitive paths help renew these places.

Image credits: (1-3) Half-Mile Hand Built Line: Berkshire Boardwalk, Andrea Jones, Garden Exposures Photo Library, (4-6) Stone River / Jon Piasecki and John Dolan, 2010 (7-9) A Path in the Forest. Reio Avaste / LIFT11

Shoo! Teenagers, Shoo!

As you come up the escalator in the Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro in Washington, D.C., you are serenaded by loudspeakers playing Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven. But why? It turns out that certain sounds really annoy teenagers and cities are now using them to keep young people out of public places. As an effort to control crime or reduce vandalism, though, the use of high frequency noises, classical music, or nature sounds raise questions about whether cities are in fact serving their younger citizens well.

In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Museum first had the idea of blasting classical music from outdoor speakers at night. The city then ran with it and began offering a selection of classical hits at the busy Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro station, where teenagers had been congregating and robberies were occuring.

The new classical soundtracks replaced a “mosquito” device, which emitted a “shrill noise at 18 KHz, a high frequency that only young people can hear.” According to Greater Greater Washington, the devices, which were put in place by a local development company, were “wrong” and probably “illegal.” The city, responding to pressure by local community and youth groups, eventually forced the developer to stop using it. The local Web site said it was unfair anyone for under 25, especially those not out to cause trouble, to face sounds as obnoxious as a chalkboard being scratched. “Toddlers, teenagers, and young adults waiting for the bus or emerging from the Metro” had to endure “a shrill screech purposely aimed at annoying them and driving them away.” 

The bigger issue for them may be a lack of accessible public spaces for teenagers in cities. Greater Greater Washington bemoans that teenagers have been pushed out of all public areas. “Before the age of suburban development and private shopping mall, cities always included grand public spaces for relaxation and socializing. Sometimes these spaces were formal, grassy parks and sometimes these places were paved plazas like the piazzas in Italy. Unlike private shopping malls, which serve as the de facto gathering places in most suburbs, public streets, squares, and parks in cities are by their virtue open to the public.” Indeed, part of Chinatown’s charm as a public place may be that it’s filled with young people out on the town. Instead of driving teens away, they argue that curfew times could be made earlier, or police patrols can be beefed up to deal with kids committing crimes.

Communities, developers, and institutions seem to be using sounds to keep trouble teens away because they can’t afford the cops or security guards they need. In a recent example, a regional transit system in Portland, Oregon, has been adding opera to the mix at light-rail stations, bringing down loitering in the process. The Huffington Post writes: “At one station, an aria from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ serenaded commuters waiting to board. ‘There’s no one that just hangs around,’ said Scott Nielsen, who has met the train at the stop for 18 months. Before the music ‘they wouldn’t get on the train, that’s how you’d know they were [loitering].'” For Lt. John Scruggs, a local policeman who created the program, it’s a success: he points to lower crime levels and a sense of “feeling safer” on the platforms.

However, the long-term effectiveness of these soundtracks may be in doubt. The Huffington Post queried Denis Crispo, Portland’s assistant city commissioner, who argued that “as a crime reduction strategy, it may work for a short period of time, but the criminals always adapt to police strategies. It really doesn’t have a lasting effect.” Vandals particularly annoyed by the music are also just ripping out the speakers. 

Teens may also soon have to contend with a new variation. In Lancaster, a town in California, a crime-ridden stretch now has 70 speakers blasting the birdsong of robins, wrens, tits, and blackbirds. “The warbles and twitters, mixed with soft synthesiser tones and water sounds, is broadcast five hours a day.” British sound engineer Julian Treasure, whose firm has created soundscapes for clients such as Nokia and Harrods, said the birdsong works by reducing cortisol and adrenaline. Apparently so: bird sounds he added in lavatories at BP service stations “contributed to a 50 percent increase in customer satisfaction.” 

Still, birdsong may actually be better than classical music and certainly better than the awful mosquito devices. The Los Angeles Times writes that noises’ effectiveness as a annoyer may be tied to the neuro-biological responses people have when they hear something they don’t care for. “When people hear music they don’t like, their brains suppress the production of dopamine — a neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure and other emotions — which puts a damper on their spirits.”

In contrast, birdsong may actually stimulate positive effects in everyone instead of just annoying some. The UK is financing a three-year research study on the benefits of being exposed to birds singing on people’s moods. The Guardian writes that the lead researcher will “recruit subjects through social media and examine the effect of birdsong on their brains and behaviour, as well as testing whether recorded birdsong – played on an iPod for example – could have the same impact as listening to birdsong in cities and in the countryside.”

Now if communities would only invest in safe, accessible places designed for teenagers. What would also be nice: Instead of piping in birdsong via speakers, communities could create public green spaces that actually attract real live birds.

Image credit: Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro Station, Washington, D.C. / Fivesixzero::Erik Hess. Flickr

Interview with Robert Hammond, Co-Founder of the High Line

Robert Hammond is Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Friends of the High Line, the non-profit conservancy that manages the High Line, a public park built atop an abandoned, elevated rail line on the west side of Manhattan. Hammond was awarded a Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, as well as the Rockefeller Foundation’s Jane Jacobs Medal for New Ideas and Activism.

In the beginning of your and Joshua David’s personal story about transforming the abandoned High Line rail line into the most applauded park of recent years, The High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, you say that early on, living in Chelsea you’d seen parts of the High Line, “but never realized all the bits and pieces connected.” What did the High Line mean in your community? When did you first understand the space in its entirety?

I lived in the neighborhood so I had always seen it when walking around, but I didn’t think it was all connected. I really didn’t think that much about it until I read an article in The New York Times in the summer of ’99 that said it was threatened with demolition, and it included a map. The article showed that it was a mile and a half long running through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, all the way up to Hell’s Kitchen near the Javits Convention Center. That’s when I first realized the whole extent of it.

I assumed someone would be working to preserve it. I called around and thought the American Institute of Architects or the Municipal Arts Society would be working on this. So many things in New York have preservation groups attached to them. But pretty quickly I found no one was doing anything for the High Line and that it was actually going to be demolished. I heard the proposed demolition was on the agenda for a community board meeting in my neighborhood so I went to my first community board meeting ever and sat next to Joshua, who I didn’t know at the time. By the end of the meeting we realized everyone in the room was in favor of demolition except for us. So we exchanged business cards and we said, “Well why don’t we start something together?”

Early on, you and Joshua had a multi-faceted strategy to keep the dream alive, to prevent the Guiliani administration from tearing down the High Line. You focused on building community support, visually documenting the site, creating design visions of what could be, while finding powerful advocates in the city government and also filing lawsuits. Which aspects of the strategy, in retrospect, proved to be most critical to moving the High Line forward in those early days?

Josh and I get a lot of credit for this great strategy. I think the most important thing we did was start the project, and it allowed other people to come along and help us get it done. In some ways, it was an asset that neither Josh nor I was an architect, landscape architect, or city planner. It forced us to basically go to other people for help. Talking to people who are interested in starting their own kind of project, that’s always the point I try to make: The most important thing that they can do is just start something. That enables other people to come along and help them get it done.

People always ask, “What was the one most critical time or event?” There wasn’t. The project had so many different pieces — the political, the economic, real estate — that there wasn’t one specific thing that made a difference. There were a whole bunch of different things. One of the things that I think is very interesting and that really connected the landscape and the ultimate design of the High Line were the photographs by Joel Sternfeld.

When Josh and I went up there, we realized what was right there in the middle of Manhattan. I first fell in love with the High Line from the street. I loved the structure, the rivets, but then when I walked up there, there was a mile and a half of wildflowers running right through the city. That’s what I really fell in love with: the combination of this wild landscape on top of this industrial structure in the middle of the city. We knew most people were never going to see it like this so we took our snapshots which just didn’t look that great. They didn’t really capture the impact of it. So I got a photographer named Joel Sternfeld to go up there and over the next year, between 2000 to 2001, he took a few pictures in all four seasons. He ultimately published a book called, Walking the High Line, back in 2002. Josh and I think of him as the third co-founder because those photographs of the wild landscape are what really helped galvanize people. I realized the most effective way to bring people on board was to show them the photographs, talking less and taking more time for people to experience the High Line through the photographs. Joel’s images really made the case for the project.

In the beginning, we didn’t know what the High Line should ultimately look like. We didn’t know exactly what the design should be. We always thought the community and the city should decide what it should be. Over time, people coalesced around Joel’s photo and when you asked them, “What do you want the High Line to be?” they’d point to Joel’s photos and they’d say, “I want it to be like that.” In some ways, that was the biggest inspiration behind the design, Joel’s photos of the landscape.

Getting the Bloomberg administration behind the effort meant coming up with a solid economic feasibility study, which you had to raise lots of funds to do. The study came up with the idea of transferring developers’ air rights and rezoning the area for commercial development. As the High Line developed, it has helped spur literally billions of dollars of new property development with a number of buildings by many marquee architects going in. Was that part of the original plan?

It was. We knew that the High Line had to make economic sense in the long-run, so we realized that for some people pretty pictures weren’t enough. We also needed an economic impact study, which is a really powerful tool for people working on parks projects because landscape, park, and public space projects can have a tremendous economic impact. Too often people just rely on what it looks like to make the case.

Of the design teams you invited to participate in the competition you said, “If I could do it over again, I’d require a landscape architect to be in the lead.” Why?

I think it’s really important. In the beginning I didn’t feel that way. I thought it would make sense for an architect to be a lead, but this is truly a landscape project. There are some architectural problems, but one of my favorite quotes is from one of our architects, Ric Scofidio, who said his job was to save the High Line from architecture. We were lucky to have that kind of architect. But going back, it’s really a landscape issue. When I talked to architects about their concept it was all additives, about adding things to the High Line. Landscape architects are better at dealing with existing conditions. Landscape architects almost always have some existing conditions, whereas architects are used to beginning from scratch. The existing condition was so important to us and had such a deep connection with the history and what people fell in love with, and James Corner recognized that.

I can’t emphasize it enough: too many times, I’ve seen people doing public spaces mesmerized by architects. For better or worse, architects have a higher profile. Architects are the name brands in public spaces. How many landscape architects can the average person name? It’d be zero that are alive. But they know architects. However, I think that’s changing. James Corner, Michael Van Valkenburgh, Hargreaves. It’s starting to change, but I think it’s just so critical for people not to be mesmerized by the famous names of the architects. What is really needed is experience working with existing stuff.

You say that a line from the book, The Leopard, sums up really your design philosophy for the High Line. “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” You had wanted to preserve the wild plants that had taken root on the abandoned tracks, but Piet Oudolf, a key part of the winning James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro team convinced you that you could create something as beautiful as the High Line in its natural state. How did the winning team change the High Line but keep it the same, preserving the idea of its natural state?

From the very beginning, they were arguing among themselves about this challenge of how do you keep what’s magic but at the same time create something new? What I liked is that they knew you couldn’t just preserve it exactly as is. That would be a mistake. If you just tried to keep it exactly as is, you would create some kind of Disney World version. It’s coming back to that quote: you need to create something new to preserve that magical feeling.

Going up there by yourself where you had private garden was magical but what the design team was able to create was an experience that is really better with people in it. It looks better with people in it. Now when I see pictures of just the High Line without any people, I realize it wasn’t as good. It’s really beautiful when you have people interacting with the new landscape of the High Line. Also, the High Line has this unique ability to make people look better. People just look better on the High Line. I think that the landscape enhances that, too. The plants are able to do that in a way I think it’s hard for buildings to do.

During the design competition you found James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro to be “avant-garde,” but dealing with details like bench width and comfort, they showed a “real practicality.” How did the landscape architects, architects, and garden designer work with you and Joshua to realize your vision for the details of the park?

One of the reasons that sometimes things would come back more expensive is that the contractors had never done the things the designers were looking to do. Like the stairways, they came back and it was incredibly expensive. The designers calculated that it would be just as cheap to crush Mercedes-Benz and have them be the stairs as what the contractors did. The contractors were offering these high estimates just because they hadn’t seen this before. It wasn’t what they normally saw. For example, our paving wasn’t normal. But at the end of the day it wasn’t that complicated. Our paving system is really pre-cast concrete planks, so it’s just fancy parking curbs done in an array of different forms. Our design team would work with the contractor to help them understand how it was not that complicated or different from things they’d done in the past.

A number of cities now seem ready to jump on the High Line bandwagon. However, some landscape architects and planners caution that given the High Line was community-driven, it can’t really be replicated. Any copies may succeed as an economic development engine, but these projects may not get any true buy-in from communities. Do you think the High Line’s success can be replicated?

There are certain projects I really like, which have their own integrity. A lot of them are generated by communities. There’s the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago, which was originally based in the community and came from a few people who lived in the area. The Atlanta Beltline, which is a much bigger ambitious project, started as one student’s thesis. The Jersey Embankment right across the river is definitely a community-based project. A project has to have that spirit from below. I think the best ones are not trying to copy the High Line; they’re trying to be something new altogether. This is the test to determine success: whether they try to create something original just like the High Line did or not.

I have my personal goals for the High Line: one is that it’s a well-loved park by New Yorkers; two is that it gets better after Josh and I leave; and three (and most importantly) is that it inspires other people to start these kind of things — not just elevated rail lines, but any kind of project. You don’t have to have experience, you don’t have to have all the money, you don’t have to have the plans all set. We developed all those things over time. That’s what stymies a lot of people. They think, “Oh, I don’t have the experience,” or, “I don’t have the money.” Those things can come.

Well, you’ve just kind of answered the last question, but I’ll just throw it out there in case you have anything else to add. What advice would you have for other community groups trying to save and perhaps transform their local infrastructure and cultural assets, whatever they may be? What advice would you have for the landscape architects partnering with them?

There’s no perfect way to do it. The most important advice is just start it and experiment. Just try things. There’s no one specific path. There are multiple ways to get started. Now a great way to do these things and galvanize a project is Facebook. Start a Kickstarter account — I’ve seen that working a lot now. One of the really important things is to raise money. It also helps start building the community. Whether someone gives five dollars, five thousand, or five million dollars, when they give money they become more invested in the project. It’s literally skin in the game. It’s an important part of building an organization or a whole movement.

We had a lot of people donate their time and energy to this project before it got off the ground. By finding community groups that need help, landscape architects and architects can, in effect, create more clients for themselves. Landscape architects can donate their services, get involved in local spaces, or just create their own.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Robert Hammond / Image credit: Annie Schlechter, (2) A Railroad Artifact, 30th Street, May 2000 / Joel Sternfeld © 2000, (3) Looking East on 30th Street on a Morning in May, 2000 / Joel Sternfeld © 2000, (4) 23rd Street Lawn, the northern end of the 4,900-square-foot lawn peels up over West 23rd Street, looking West, toward the Hudson River.  ©Iwan Baan, 2011, (5) A meandering pathway passes by old and new architecture in West Chelsea, between West 24th and West 25th Streets, looking South.  ©Iwan Baan, 2011

A New Life for an Industrial Landscape in California

California’s Burbank Water and Power (BWP), one of the first power companies in the U.S. to procure a major chunk of its power from renewable energy sources and develop an ambitious carbon reduction plan, is transforming its main campus from an “industrial relic” into a “regenerative green space,” bringing the utility to the forefront of sustainable landscape design. The new landscape is among the 150 sites selected around the country to participate in the Sustainable Site Initiative™ (SITES®) pilot program. Los Angeles-based landscape architecture firm AHBE Landscape Architects was hired by BWP to create an ambitious “EcoCampus.”

Already, the new campus has three of the 50 LEED Platinum buildings found in California, including its first super-sustainable warehouse. Beyond the buildings, though, the campus offers green roofs, which were designed to “reduce the urban heat island effect, help channel and filter storm water, and reduce the building’s air conditioning requirements;” water reclamation and filtration systems, and new employee green spaces carved out of a reclaimed substation.

The green roofs were installed across three buildings in the BWP campus. According to the utility, “the timing was perfect as our aging roof needed to be replaced.” Adding green roofs also saved the company, which is promoting energy conservation as a key cost savings measure, a bit of money themselves, some $14,000 annually.

AHBE Landscape Architects designed a number of filtration and stormwater capture systems that compliment each other. Green streets with permeable pavers and “infiltration bump outs” along three city streets filter runoff before it enters the campus’ stormwater system, where it’s then captured by the built planters and trees set within silva cells, which enable the trees to grow taller. Roof runoff is filtered down to the landscape, where it’s used up by the greenery. “By California law, all projects are required to mitigate at least the first ¾ inches of rainfall. Thanks to the innovative technologies that AHBE has integrated into the design, the BWP EcoCampus already mitigates the first inch.” The end goal is zero runoff on site.

A substation structure was left in place, providing a repurposed outdoor meeting room. “The skeletal remains of the substation will soon be covered in living vines, creating a poignant juxtaposition of industry and environment.”

Calvin Abe, FASLA, President, of AHBE, made the case for transforming the utility’s industrial landscape into a productive one: “Landscape has a key role to play in the regeneration of our cities. Beyond the aesthetics, it can proactively counteract many of the problems that we face in urban environments.”

But their job was made a lot easier because their client’s vision is a bold one. Ron Davis, BWP General Manager, said: “BWP chose to do this to show that sustainability is not just about a single action or decision; it’s about the ripple effect that consistent, sustainable decisions can make. BWP’s EcoCampus is literally powered by innovation. We want this to cause a ripple.”

Watch a video about the BWP’s new campus.

Image credits: © Sibylle Allgaier, Heliphoto

Frederick Law Olmsted Is Holding Us Back (There. I Said It.)

This article is reprinted from the February issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

I don’t mean to say that dear old Olmsted, our cherished hero, our symbolic leader, has been acting like an overbearing parent. Our problem with Frederick Sr. is something that we as landscape architects keep bringing on ourselves by clinging to him too stubbornly. We constantly use his image and throw around his famous name and perpetuate the notion to people who don’t know better that the name Olmsted is somehow synonymous with our profession. This is not helping our cause.

Nowadays, we need to promote ourselves as innovators who look ahead, who are capable of solving complex contemporary problems. By linking our image so closely to the archaic legacy of a man best known for creating bucolic 19th-century landscapes, we look rather irrelevant in that regard.

I recently skimmed through the past seven years of Landscape Architecture Magazine—from January 2005 to December 2011—curious to see how many issues made reference to Olmsted. Out of those 84 issues, he was discussed by name in 71 of them. And of the 13 issues that didn’t mention him directly, seven talked about Central Park in New York City, and two others mentioned the Olmsted Brothers firm. That is 80 out of 84—or 95 percent—of the most recent issues of our leading professional publication talking about Olmsted, his most famous work, or the second generation of his firm. That’s a lot of Olmsted.

Several of those references are admittedly in articles I have written for LAM, which makes me not a hypocrite but rather qualifies me all the more to raise the issue. I know firsthand how easy it is to lean on the crutch provided by a good Olmsted reference. If he’s in it, it’s got to be worth reading, right?

Our preoccupation with Olmsted stems from a chronic, debilitating inferiority complex that plagues our profession. We lament that laypeople confuse us with landscape designers and horticulturists, and we envy the greater visibility that architects enjoy. All of this contributes to a feeling of inadequacy. So given that we don’t have anyone else with Olmsted’s kind of public brand identity to throw out there the way architects name-drop Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, and others, we make every effort to keep Olmsted in the conversation. The fear seems to be that if people stop talking about him, they stop talking about landscape architecture. I hate to say it, but there is some truth in that paranoia.

These days, the High Line is the biggest deal to have hit landscape architecture in a long time. It had the unique potential to even out the disparity in public perception between architecture and landscape architecture. The starry design competition and the universally loved project by James Corner Field Operations should have helped begin to cure our image woes. But something unexpected happened: The media and masses celebrated the opening and subsequent expansion of the project, but that conversation has to a large extent left out landscape architecture, at least outside our own circles.

Not too long ago I was flipping through the TV channels and saw the architect Elizabeth Diller being interviewed by Martha Stewart for a series titled Women With Vision. Diller is a principal of Diller Scofidio + Renfro Architects (DS+R), who were subconsultants to Corner’s office on the High Line. When Diller was discussing the project, she spoke appropriately about the importance of the site but then neglected to mention any role played by landscape architects. No James Corner. No Field Operations. No mention of Piet Oudolf, who helped with planting design, either.

New Yorkers don’t care who gets recognized for the High Line. They got a fabulous, transformative urban space that would make Olmsted proud (see how easily that reference just slips in there?). But it should matter deeply to landscape architects that Corner’s team receives its due credit. This type of work—reconceiving the urban realm—is a critical part of the present and future of our profession. And while media bits, such as an interview with Martha Stewart, may seem like fluff, they are important in determining what our stake in the game is going to be.

We hear and read all the time about how much the world is changing. Climate change, economic instability, ecological catastrophe, and societal shifts are forcing people to look at things in new ways. This has triggered a huge shift in the design world, too. Landscape and water issues drive the shaping of cities as never before. None of this is breaking news. Such a change in the worldview will naturally lead to significantly more work for landscape architects. It has to, right? But the reality is we can’t expect such things to just fall into our laps. Architects clearly see how the playing field is being tilted in our favor, and they aren’t happy about it. They will fight for their share of the action. Probably for most of ours too.

Architecture is embedded in the media and contemporary popular culture in ways we can only envy at this point, so its voice is much louder than ours. Architects can create buzz so the world clamors to see what Norman Foster and Frank Gehry are going to produce next, although it becomes less surprising as time goes on. We, meanwhile, remain perched solidly upon Olmsted’s shoulders.

Several recent documentaries and biographies have focused on Olmsted’s life and career, so he never seems to want for attention. He had a costarring role in Erik Larson’s hugely popular historical novel, The Devil in the White City, and now may even be Hollywood-bound with a big-screen adaptation of that book in the works starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I can already picture an actor wearing a period costume, with the white beard and the cane, all reinforcing the grandfatherly image of Olmsted. This is great in that it will help landscape architecture reach the masses, but it won’t exactly enhance our image as a vital contemporary profession.

We need to actively present a wider view of both our past and present to change the misconception people have about what we do. It may not be easy, however, given that even the landscape architects we consider stars have a tough time getting us the recognition we are looking for. Case in point: A recent edition of the CBS news program Sunday Morning revolved around the famed Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, designed by the architect Eero Saarinen. The talk was all “architect this, architect that,” but when it came to discussing the landscape, which is one of the landscape architect Dan Kiley’s masterpieces, it went something like this: “The garden was designed by Dan Kiley.” Period. I was thrilled to hear Kiley mentioned by name, but there was no hint of any professional association or credentials. It was as if this guy Kiley were the groundskeeper.

And so on. I realize that many of us have collected examples of such slights to our profession. None of this is Olmsted’s fault. But we can’t just blame the media. We have a big responsibility in all of this, too.

When Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, was recently elected into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, joining the exalted ranks of fellow landscape architects Laurie Olin, FASLA, Thomas Church, Lawrence Halprin, and Olmsted, among many other luminaries, I barely heard a peep about it—even from within our own ranks. This is a huge deal, not only for Van Valkenburgh, but for all of us. The more accolades that an individual landscape architect gets, the more respect our whole profession receives.

Last August 17, a public awareness event organized by ASLA gave landscape architects across the country a platform for spreading the message that we are part of a thriving profession. It was, by all accounts, a big success. Another such event is being set up for this year, and I encourage all landscape architects to get involved in some way and brag on the work you are doing. That event will be held on April 26.

That’s Olmsted’s birthday.

Mark Hough, ASLA, is campus landscape architect at Duke Univeristy.

Image credit: LAM

A City Center Becomes a Garden

Aberdeen, a city in Scotland, is not only transforming its urban center into a garden and cultural center, but also making sure the proposed designs suit the needs of the public. An upcoming referendum will gauge public support for the designs created by landscape architects OLIN, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Scottish architects KeppieDesign, which won an international design competition. 

OLIN writes that the new City Garden will be a “reinvigorated green heart of the city,” doubling the urban core’s current size. A key concept is to reconnect the dramatic landscape of Aberdeen with the city via a “web of paths.” This web will provide opportunities for visitors to explore a diverse set of gardens harking back to Aberdeen’s rich natural and cultural history. “The gardens’ planting palettes will mimic the regional landscape and ecology of Northeast Scotland and be supplemented with plants from its European neighbors and other parts of the world.”

Buildings and landscapes will work together to create micro-climates, offering buffers from the harsher aspects of local weather. All native plants will be used to ensure local fauna also take home in the garden city. By showing what sustainability looks like in practice, the designers hope that they can engage residents of Aberdeen in a civic dialogue about the future of their environment. “Underlying the design of the landscape is a desire both to engage and teach.” In addition to providing sensory stimulation, the gardens will promote local horticultural skills as well.

The new green space will offer an opportunity for a new “landmark cultural and arts centre,” which promotes the city’s historic streets, “revealing the arches, vaults and bridge on Union Street and retaining the balustrades and statues which are part of Aberdeen’s legacy,” writes Malcolm Reading Consultants, the group that managed the competition.

In their article, Charles Renfro, the lead architect on the project, summed up the idea of the new city center: “While the City Garden is at the heart of Aberdeen, the heart has little pulse…we feel that we can make that heart throb and bring life and energy into the centre of town. By making the park greener, more accommodating to passive and active uses, more engaged at its edges, the gardens can become a magnet for this otherwise youthful and energetic city.” OLIN Partner-in-Charge on the project, Richard Newton, ASLA, added: “Our studio is truly honored to be a part of a team of such accomplished firms to transform Aberdeen’s City Garden into an accessible public space that seamlessly integrates the history and fabric of the city with the region’s remarkable native landscape, providing a unique opportunity for residents to enjoy each other’s company and celebrate their vibrant culture.”

The city, which sees going greener as central to its future economic competitiveness, worked closely with the jury and consultants that devised economic impact studies. Charles Landry, author of The Creative City and a member of the Jury, relayed some of the economic values of the project: “This is a design that can act as the catalyst to regenerate the whole of Aberdeen’s city centre with significant economic impacts for the entire city. Truly inspiring, it can put Aberdeen onto the global radar screen – very, very few designs can do this. Without this type of transformational change, Aberdeen will struggle to meet the challenges it will inevitably face in the future.”  

There are no details on the project size or budget but with the public referendum, more information is sure to be coming.

Image credits: Copyright Diller Scofidio + Renfro