National Mall Design Competition Will Be Fierce

Many of the world’s top landscape architects and architects presented their designs for three grand projects on the National Mall: Constitution Gardens, Union Square, and the Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre. The competition is fierce because all the design proposals offer elegant, exciting, innovative ideas for solving sticky ecological, security, and public space design challenges. Each proposal may reflect a $100,000 or more of conceptual and design work. But all that work may actually be worth it: the pay-off could be big for these top designers. Some $700 million in public and private funds are expected to be raised to make these projects a reality. Also, in the U.S. at least, few sites would get more visitors than a major new site in the city of monuments.

One worrying wrinkle: Congress recently decided to transfer control of Union Square, the 11-acre reflecting pool area in front of the Capitol, to the Architect of the Capitol, a group that may take that piece out of contention. We hope that the Architect of the Capitol will move forward with the process and work together with the Trust for the National Mall to revitalize this critical public space. ASLA’s blue-ribbon panel of landscape architects recommended a re-design in a review of the National Park Service’s plan a few years ago.

A brief overview of design proposals for each are listed below, alphabetically. Each team is a true collaboration, a 50-50 effort between a landscape architecture and architecture firm.

Constitution Gardens

All design proposals seem to focus on ecologically restoring Constitution Gardens and improving access to the lake and nature. All offer new multi-functional structures, some of which are designed to almost seamlessly integrate with the landscape.

Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson: For this design team featuring Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Andropogon, the new Constitution garden could be a place of “respite, regeneration and romance.” The team offers a “biophilic design” that “harnesses nature to transform Constitution Gardens into a picture of healthy water, soil, foilage, habitat, and people.” In the lake, a new waterfall bridge would encourage fun interactions with nature.

Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects + Paul Murdoch Architects: This design team, which includes landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, offers another biophilic approach, with what looks like a proposal for a major ecological restoration. Reconstructed wetlands will be accessible via boardwalks that jut out into the water, while a performance space somewhat concealed in the landscape offers views of the lake and gardens.  

OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi: OLIN, a landscape architecture firm that has done lots of work on the National Mall, works with Weiss / Manfredi to offer “Living Waters: A Museum without Walls, a model for integrating social activity and green infrastructure into our national cultural landscape.” The design team proposes a “layered approach” that “brings the health of the water and surrounding landscape into balance and introduces a new collection of indoor and outdoor ecologically vibrant destinations.”

Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture: Rogers Marvel Architects, which just won the national competition to redesign the Ellipse, presents a proposal with PWP Landscape Architecture that honors the “clear and optimistic legacy of Constitution Gardens through amplified morphology, aesthetic ecology, and pastoral recreation. A vibrant haven on the National Mall.” A pavilion restaurant would look out on the lake and gardens. In the winter, a skating rink would appear.

Union Square

All designs seem to bring Union Square more in line with the existing streets and avenues, while offering an ecologically-sound, secure, and flexible space for free speech.  

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design: This design team, which includes Walter Hood, FASLA, recent National Design Award winner, says their proposal integrates “the rich architectural legacies, natural ecologies, civic vitality, and political centrality of Washington D.C. into a new synthesis.” Their proposal would catch water in a basin, and then feed it through a new set of wetlands ringing Union Square. The water cleansed by the wetlands would then feed into a new reflecting pool, which would serve as a platform for speech. A microphone would turn visitors’ voices into waves on the pool.  

Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond: This team with Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, a landscape architecture firm that has done a number of projects in Washington, D.C. (including the new CityCenter), would create a highly flexible space that can reconfigure itself for different uses. A design with multiple layers and different “rooms,” there are plans for new site hydrologic systems, soils, plants, and sustainable materials. A more limited reflecting pool is found between steps set in lush botanical gardens.

Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect + Pei Cobb Freed & Partners: Landscape architect Ken Smith, ASLA, and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners offers a highly flexible, oval reflecting pool ringed by a “fountain necklace.” Diagonals across the pool serve as dividing lines and show how the pool can disappear in segments if hardscapes are needed for protests. Thick stone benches would provide a place to contemplate the Capitol, while a rich planting scheme would be set within bronze-plated walls, included for security reasons.

Snohetta + AECOM: Architecture firm Snohetta, which is now redesigning the Times Square pedestrian mall, and AECOM, which recently purchased landscape architecture firm EDAW, presents a new “circular and sloping theatre-like platform” that would rise seven feet above nearby streets, perhaps for security reasons. “Vernal gardens” with “integrated benches and new natural landscape forms” will provide a “discreet” security barrier, while also reintroducing the indigineous landscape. On either side of the sloping theatre, a set of “undulating” trellises would mimic the movement of eagles’ wings.

The Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre

All designs create multiple performance spaces and integrate restaurants, restrooms, and bicycle and bus access into the new setting. All the designs would transform a dull, underused part of the mall into one of the most exciting draws, while linking the theatre area with the ecological systems of the Tidal Basin.

Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company: Landscape and urban design firm Balmori Associates, which has done the master plan and parks for the new waterfront Bilbao, and Work Architecture Company seek to create multiple outdoor performance spaces, including a Sylvan Theatre with its Sylan “bowl,” a recessed natural seating area; Courtyard Stage; Cherry Grove Stage; Oak Grove Stage; along with other outdoor spaces, including a playground, bike rental stand, and restaurant. One key goal is to “impart the feeling that the new landscape belongs there, that it fits within the range of diverse forms and programs of the Mall.”

Diller, Scofidio and Renfro + Hood Design: One of the few design teams offering proposals for two sites, this design team proposes a landscape that is “figuratively ‘peeled up’ to create a new structure that serves as both outdoor theater and building program, blurring the lines between nature and artifice.” Their design uses the curves in the “peeled-up” areas to create seating for multiple stages, while the underneath of the curves present ecological experiences for visitors and spaces for restaurants. 

Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio: This team, which includes landscape architecture firm Tom Leader Studio, seeks to renew the site’s “connection to the Tidal Basin, drawing the elms, lindens, and oaks to the Monument. Creating a partnership with, rather than a dominion over, nature, biology, and water keeps with the agrarian philosophies of our Nation’s founders.” The design is defined by a “sweeping, centripetal” design with a multi-purpose facility that has an Oculus at its center. A stage can fold out into a huge pavilion.

OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi: Another team offering proposals in two areas, OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi, would create a new set of amphitheatres, including the Sylvan Grove, defined by a “new wooded canopy and terraced lawn,” and a Sylvan Pavilion for “impromptu performances” that would offer an “all-weather café and multi-use destination.” The design team envisions a highly sustainable “performance” landscape, connecting the Mall to the Tidal Basin.

Explore all proposals in more detail and submit your feedback before April 15 if you want your comments to reach the competition jury.

Image credit: (1) National Mall /, (2) Andropogon + Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, (3) Nelson Byrd Woltz Landcape Architects + Paul Murdoch Architects, (4) OLIN + Weiss / Manfredi, (5) Rogers Marvel Architects + PWP Landscape Architecture, (6) Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design, (7) Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + David Brody Bond, (8) Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect + Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, (9) Snohetta + AECOM, (10) Balmori Associates + Work Architecture Company, (11) Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Hood Design, (12) Michael Maltzan Architecture + Tom Leader Studio, (13) OLIN + Weiss/Manfredi

Interview with Diana Balmori

Dr. Diana Balmori, FASLA, Ph.D, is principal of Balmori Associates. Balmori also teaches at the Yale School of Architecture and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and has served as a Senior Fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, D.C for seven years. She serves on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Balmori’s most recent books are
Groundwork (Monacelli Press, 2011) with Joel Sanders and Landscape Manifesto (Yale University Press, 2010).

In Groundwork, your new book with architect Joel Sanders, you argue that designers must “pursue a new approach that overcomes the false dichotomy between architecture and landscape.” How did this false dichotomy begin? What are architects and landscape architects doing to perpetuate it?

Architects think of architecture as an object, and of landscape as background to that object, just something you put the object on but not something that has anything to do with the object itself. The famous dividing line given is five feet from where the building ends is where the landscape starts. That explains the separation in a very graphic way. While many arts have really been moving away from the object, architecture has really become more and more object-oriented.

The change in the relationship between the two has a lot to do with the fact that space has become more important than the object. That elevates the status of landscape on the one hand and diminishes the status of the object. That’s the beginning of the change. It’s quite evident that this is happening now so architects have suddenly become more interested in landscape.

It is now space that interests us. And landscape is the discipline in which artistic ideas are being debated. It has become the place in which to have the debate. Now I’m saying this as if it had already happened. You’re going to see places where it’s not happening at all, you’re going to see places where a little bit is happening, and you’ll find places in which it’s very clear has happened.

You and Sanders also argue that if architects and landscape architects got on the same page, buildings and landscapes could perform so much better and work as “linked, interactive systems that heal the environment.” How can these disciplines meet up? What are the points of agreement?

The real points of agreement are outside of both professions in a way. It lies in the new definition of nature, a definition that has dramatically changed. One of the most dramatic changes is that suddenly we are part of nature. Before, we were outside it, nature was out there, we did things to it, it did things to us, but we were outside. Now we know that we’re totally integrated and whatever we do to nature affects us, too. This new way of looking at nature suddenly changes the basis of our thinking.

There will be no remedy but to put the architecture and landscape together. Both architects and landscape architects are starting to work in ways that imitate nature in the way that it functions. Buildings are trying to become much more like living things. Their facades can move so that at times of sun this happens and at times of rain this other thing happens. They’re becoming like breathing animals, too. You bring the air in and expel it in a different way, like a living being. We’re now looking at living systems to see how the building could imitate them better.

Landscape architects have been working with living things for a very long time so they’re very much more attuned to how difficult it is to maintain life and have it prosper. However, at the same time, they would like to find ways in which they can engineer things to work like natural systems. So they’re working much more with inert materials that they didn’t use before because they had this false naturalism. Engineered systems are fine as long as they work like nature. You don’t imitate the surface or the looks of the landscape but you imitate how it works. So there’s a big shift, a colossal shift. Suddenly, landscape architects and architects are much more on the same page because of these ideas. It’s now possible to cross that line.

Instead of embedding nature in the city, which can be accomplished by adding urban parks, you say “the city must now be embedded in nature.” What’s the difference? How can landscape architects accomplish this?

In a way, the answer to this lies in my answer to the earlier question. The city needs to begin to work like nature. That’s what embedding nature really means. All of its systems need to become like natural systems. For example, in the 19th century, when water had to be dealt with, you gathered all of it, drained in a sewer line, and emptied it into a river. The conveyance of water and sewage was an incredible invention, incredibly important for cities; these systems allowed cities to grow. But we now have natural systems by which we could gather water project by project, treat it in place, clean it, then reuse it as gray water, and return a part of it to the atmosphere through the evapotranspiration of plants. These systems only require something like a city block to be justified. We don’t need to think of putting in a system for a city of ten million because that’s going to take centuries to change. If we can change cities by adding in localized systems that work like nature, then the city would be embedded in nature.

Some of your projects change how people interact with nature in the city. Your firm created plans for Farmington Canal in New Haven, a 14-mile stretch of abandoned railroad track, and actually transform one segment in front of Yale University’s Malone Center. How did this linear park, one of the first ever, work? How do you find people are using it?

Well, it’s very successful. It was 14 miles but it only reached the edge of the city because the land that belonged to Yale. The four blocks that took you to the heart of downtown belonged to Yale. I did this study of the whole canal, which was created first then in turn was abandoned. It was going to be sold off in pieces as parking lots and other buildings, etc. Bringing it back was totally a community effort. They asked me to help and said, “Well, look, if you’d produce some drawings maybe we can convince somebody, because we’re not able to convince them now.” So I did a study for them and explored what these things could become over time, over a long stretch of time. I took the whole 14 miles, particularly one chunk just going out of New Haven, and said this thing is like a centipede with many, many legs. Where it intersects with streets, that part of the city can change. You could turn buildings’ entrances around, open different streets, close others.

The community group was able to convince the city. They got the Trust for Public Land to negotiate with the railroad to buy the land. The city chose a local engineer to build those 14 miles. All of the linear parks have been built as essentially a 10-foot wide asphalt top with vegetation along the sides. It’s great it’s been saved from being sold off in pieces.

At the very beginning of these linear parks, it was considered a way of banking land in a continuous line for a future system of transportation. However, no one really seriously considered that this could become a park. Well, you should try to take this away from the citizens of New Haven because what happens is that this linear park, like most of them, has become very, very popular. It’s used for running, biking, walking, and going places. It still has problems in areas where there’s a very high crime rate, but the crime is diminished by the fact that the linear park is there. It’s constantly used as a transit network and it’s monitored.

Downtown, Yale then decided to do the four blocks of linear park. These four blocks are really a wonderful way to bring this park all the way downtown. We finished the first two blocks last year and the next two blocks will be finished next year.

Another project you designed, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Forth Worth, upends the idea of a parking lot, blurring the lines between nature and transportation infrastructure. Instead of hard, dead space, this parking lot offers densely planted “water-gathering rills.” Getting out of the car is just the beginning of the “botanical experience.” What will it take for these types of parking lots, which offer multiple benefits, to go mainstream? What’s the cost of doing something like this compared with a regular parking lot?

The cost of these parking lots is higher but only by a bit. When you look at them over a chunk of time they are cheaper. Parking lots are often done at the end of a project, and developers don’t want to spend any money on them. So they become these wastelands, the least sustainable parts of our environment. With just a bit more effort we can make these parking lots assets that give back.

Besides parking lots, there are other ways to use nature to transform the city. In Bilbao, we won a garden design competition to participate in the Bilbao Jardin Garden festival. We were among 20 designers invited to create a garden on a 30 x 30 feet square space. We asked the city if we could change the form but keep the same dimensions. So we created this garden that climbs the stairs and turns a space you move through into an experience, a destination. It was a temporary project but it transformed a piece of the city for five months.

Many of your residential projects, particularly the rooftop gardens, still feel cutting-edge. Can you talk about how you designed the rooftop garden on 684 Broadway, which maximizes biodiversity, and the Solaire, which was the first green roof on a residential high-rise in the U.S.?

When I first designed the rooftop garden on the The Solaire I wanted lots of bamboo, but we had this landscape contractor who didn’t really know how to do this. I wanted to create this poetic effect, because with bamboo, you have the wind moving through, which creates this lovely sound. But bamboo, which is a very strong plant when it’s in the ground, can only be moved about one week during the year. Well, our contractor missed the date so the bamboo all died. We replaced it with Amelanchier trees which are much easier to plant.

The 684 Broadway project is a good example of what Joel Sanders and I were talking about in Groundwork, it’s a real merging of the landscape and building forms. We used a sustainable strategy that aims to maximize biodiversity and sustainable design by extending green space both horizontally and vertically within the renovated apartment and exterior roof space. I used lots of native grasses to create a quiet space.

In your bold recent book, Landscape Manifesto, you offer 25 rules on how to think about and work with nature. Which guides you the most? Which is the most important for all of us to remember?

I can’t say which is the most important out of all of them. These aren’t meant to be rules but guidelines. All 25 are important, which is why they are in the book. I can only say which is most important to me at the moment.

#24 Landscape can be like poetry, highly suggestive, and open to multiple interpretations.

#15 Landscape can create a meeting place where people can delight in unexpected forms and spaces, inventing why and how they are to be appreciated.

I think this sense of invention, of not knowing how my landscapes are going to be used is exciting. People use spaces in ways I hadn’t imagined. I love that. 

Image credits: (1) Diana Balmori / Image credit: © Margaret Morton, (2) Hudson Yards, New York. Image credit: © Balmori Associates and Work AC, (3) Farmington Canal at Yale University, New haven, CT. Image credit: © Balmori Associates, (4) Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Fort Worth. Image credit: Beck / Aerial Photography, Inc., (5) The Garden that Climbs the Stairs. Image credit: © Iwan Baan, (6) The Solaire, Battery Park City, New York. Image credit: © Balmori Associates, (7) 684 Broadway, New York, Balmori Associates and Joel Sanders Architect. Image credit: © Mark Dye

Interview conducted by Jared Green

What Makes a Street Green?

There are many ecological technologies that can make a street green, but the key element is being “flexible, adaptable,” said Neil Weinstein, executive director of the Low Impact Development Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the use of green infrastructure in the built environment, at a session organized by the National Building Museum. Weinstein, who is a licensed engineer and landscape architect, was co-chair of an American Society of Civil Engineer (ASCE) conference on green streets, and, through the LID Center, has been a pioneer in green infrastructure, so his take is worth hearing.

Weinstein said there are lots of different technologies both landscape architects and engineers are using to make streets greener, including deeper street tree pits; compost-amended soils; permeable sidewalks, bikelanes, parking lots, and streets; and bioretention systems, including bioswales. These systems create not only “complete streets” that offer equal access for pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars, but are also ecological systems that manage stormwater.

More than a decade ago, Weinstein was involved in creating the first green street in Washington, D.C. on 8th street, which features a “permeable structured swale” along the sidewalk. Since then, the green street movement has grown, with some even looking at “green highways” that can offer conservation and ecosystem protections, include recycled or reused materials, and provide “watershed-driven” stormwater management. 

Perhaps one sign of the growing demand for green streets is that there are more 25 rating systems offering points or credits to enable these systems, said Weinstein. In fact, Envision, a new one created by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI) in collaboration with the Zofnass program for sustainable infrastructure at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, was just released. Envision, which was largely designed by a consortium of engineering organizations and is primarily aimed at engineers, seeks to provide a “a holistic framework for evaluating and rating the community, environmental, and economic benefits of all types and sizes of infrastructure projects.” ISI says that the Envision can also be used by landscape architects and architects, planners, community groups, regulators, and policymakers for “roads and bridges, airports and waste treatment facilities, ports and refineries, high rise buildings and electricity grids.” 

With or without rating systems, there has been some recent success stories designing and implementing green streets. In the D.C. area, the Edmonston green street has gotten lots of attention. Financed in part by E.P.A. stormwater management grants, this project designed by the LID Center is increasingly being presented as an easily-replicable model. Weinstein said the project involved putting this community’s main street on a “road diet,” narrowing the space for cars in favor of new bioswales, permeable sidewalks, and bicycle lanes that “better tie into natural systems.” He said this project and others demonstrate how useful it is for local government to move from a “prescriptive” approach that dictates what needs to go where to a “performance-based” approach that asks what is needed to solve environmental issues.

Still, there’s more work to be done to make green streets mainstream. Within national standards organizations, there should be a move towards “concurrence (not consensus) about new approaches and materials.” Local demonstration projects “that ask the right questions” are still needed to show how national models can be applied to the unique conditions of local communities. Communities need to see and understand how these green street systems actually work.

Image credit: Edmonston Mayor Robert Kerns demonstrates permeable pavement / Greg Dohler. The Gazette

Cao | Perrot’s Cherry Blossoms

Following the success of Easy Rider, an installation by land artist Patrick Dougherty, Dumbarton Oaks, which used to be a somewhat stuffy D.C. institution, seems to have really let loose with Cloud Terrace, a new temporary installation by landscape artists Cao | Perrot. In an effort to create “fresh, unexpected experiences” in Dumbarton Oaks’ gardens, Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot roped in a bunch of volunteers to create hand-meshed clouds that dangle some 10,000 Swarovski crystals (on loan), creating the effect of raining clouds. While some argue that messing with these gardens is like “adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa,” said John Beardsley, director of the landscape studies program, the new Dumbarton Oaks team is for “breathing new life into these landscapes,” which are “living works” no matter how historic.

In describing his firm’s work, Cao, who was born in Vietnam but raised in the U.S., says he’s into creating temporary places. However, the real theme seemed to be recreating the beauty and power of key moments in nature, like “Cherry blossoms blooming,” but using non-conventional materials to create these effects. At first glance, their installation can seem otherworldly.

Cao and Perrot discussed some of their earlier works. Lareau Garden, one of the duo’s earliest installations, includes thousands of glass pebbles, which seem to create a river through the site. The project took two years to create but looks like it just happened.

The Lullaby Garden project was created using rolled earthen forms, while carpets of biodegradable nylon material were sewn and laid on top, also creating a sense of rolling waves. This project, like others, has an ephemeral feel and uses organic and recycled materials designed to disintegrate, destroying the landscape art work in the process. Cao said: “the colors were designed to slowly fade and the forms will disappear over time.”

An eye-opening project, Mimosa, in the Luxembourg Garden’s Medici Foundation, used fresh mimosa flowers suspended on fishing lines to bring a bit of New Delhi to France.

An earlier cloud project, which is in the same family of projects as the Dumbarton Oaks installation, brings clouds to a backyard in Los Angeles, while the unbelievable Willow Tree is made up of 80,000 mother-of-pearl leaves crafted by a village in China.

This project, like so many others by this team, is clearly inspired by nature and creates similarly powerful effects, yet is somehow not natural. Perrot tried to explain: these projects are for a “specific time – they are about the moment. They are not just a landscape, but a total environment.”

The duo is not just stopping at the small, temporary scale but are delving into large-scale works of landscape architecture, too. One park in the works in China will be more than 600 acres and will promise a sequence of outdoor “rooms” with different experiences, all set using their “intuition” throughout. 

If in Washington, D.C., be sure to check out Cao | Perrot’s temporary installation before the crystals have to be returned or see their portfolio online.

Image credits: (1-3) Cloud Terrace  at Dumbarton Oaks;  image © Stephen Jerrome for  cao | perrot studio, (4-7) copyright Cao | Perrot

Diana Balmori: “The Important Thing Is the Space”

In a talk at the National Building Museum, Spanish-born Diana Balmori, FASLA, a leading landscape designer famous for both her projects in Spain and the U.S., made the case for focusing on our shared landscapes, arguing that they are increasingly the “terrain for discussing our issues,” much more so than buildings. Her goal, actually, is to “diminish the importance of objects (buildings) in our landscapes” and make “primary the expression of our spaces.” Her team at Balmori Associates in New York City has created a laboratory focused on finding out which things have the greatest “primacy” within landscapes. “We’re still experimenting.”

The results of her experiments can be breathtaking. From creating a new city from scratch in South Korea to revitalizing left over transportation infrastructure or completely revamping a public plaza with a temporary garden installation, Balmori shows how landscape architects can use “ecological tools” and “artistic interventions” to create and remake spaces.

Balmori, who also teaches in Yale University’s School of Architecture and School of Forestry, said landscape architecture used to be one of the most important art forms. The landscape architect of Versailles was the “most esteemed” of the many artists working on that site. In the 19th century, the “sublime, beautiful” landscapes were shaped by painters, who were in turn shaped by what landscape architects were doing. However, by the late 19th century, “landscape architects were relegated to planting, shrubbing up an architect’s building.” Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back again? 

A Landscape Manifesto, Balmori’s book from a few years ago, outlines 25 points. Here, in her talk, she linked some of those ideas with projects she’s done.

We must put the city in nature, not just nature in the city.

To illustrate this idea, Balmori discussed Long Island (Green) City, an ambitious concept for Long Island City, NY, which offers a low-cost way to make an urban community more sustainable through the roll-out of acres and acres green roofs. She found that without even buying up land to turn into open space – really, just using rooftops, there were some 700 acres (a plot the size of Prospect Park) available out of some 1,200 acres to green.

As for projects, an actual green roof for Silvercup Studios was the “largest green roof project at its time” in New York City (see image at top). There, a mix of sedum and engineered systems were used to create a green roof that could be studied for its environmental benefits. Sensors were set up to capture data on how the new roof was storing stormwater, mitigating the urban heat island effect, and reducing air particulates. The data “exceeded our expectations.”

Landscape is not just a destination.

The linear park is a major “invention of the 21st century.” In New Haven, Balmori worked with a community group to transform 14-miles of an old rail line into not just a destination but a “connector, stretching out to the sides, with feet” into the communities that line it. She created a master plan outlining possible landscape projects over 50 years, while remaking four blocks of the Farmington Canal on Yale University’s campus. The space is now heavily used by the community.

We must create a new urban identity from the nature underlying cities.

Prairie Gateway, a suburban development Balmori designed in Minneapolis, created both a livable community and a system for “moving and storing water” utlizing the existing ecosystems. The system became a park that is always well-used and even now accomodates canoes. Importantly, the system Balmori stewarded “worked beautifully during a 100 year flood event we had soon after it was created.”

This project may be important because it shows that “you don’t need a whole city’s worth of infrastructure to deal with water.” Communities can just set aside an area. She called for preserving any open space though because once a community develops the space “it’s nearly impossible to get it back” to use for stormwater management.

Landscape bridges the line between ourselves and the river.

While little known in the U.S., Balmori was as central to the cultural rebirth of Bilbao as Frank Gehry was with his Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao, which is the “Detroit of Spain,” took down its industrial waterfront, freeing up a “very valuable piece of land” along its riverfront, which would eventually be the site of the new museum. The city wanted all the transportation infrastructure – buses, trains, and a new subway – to meet in the central part of the city, and connect more closely with the river.

Balmori won an international competition for Abandobarra to create the master plan, particularly the open space component. Her team created a linear riverfront park, a green boulevard for the light rail line, a series of paths to bring residents down to the water, and a central park and pathway from the center of Bilbao to the waterfront. Over the past decade, she’s been designing and implementing the multiple parks in the master plan.

Landscape has leapt the fence to the city.

A new public administrative city is in the works in Daejeon, South Korea, showing how the landscape can guide the development of a city from scratch. The project is an effort to free up congestion in Seoul by moving the many government workers out to a new community. A total of 13 ministries are moving to the new development laid out by Balmori, which will include seven buildings set under a continuous roof, connecting all the buildings and employees in one grand project. Balmori wanted the buildings to be capped at six stories to create the sense that “government is accessible.” The prime minister moves in later this year, but this bold project won’t be fully completed until 2050.

Landscape is an art with multiple dimensions.

A winner of an urban gardens competition in Bilbao, Balmori was assigned a tough public plaza site to show what landscape, as an artform, can do to transform conventional spaces into something exciting. Given a 30 by 30 plot, Balmori decided to transform the dimensions into a garden that climbs the stairs. While the project was temporary, she believes these types of projects can have major impact on how we see the built environment.

Groundwork, Balmori’s recent book with architect Joel Sanders, focuses on how to break down the artificial divisions between landscape architecture and architecture. See a review.

Image credits: Balmori Associates.

Landscapes Abstracted

Barry Underwood, an artist and professor of photograpy at the Cleveland Art Institute, is doing wild things with lights and landscapes. Temporarily installing his lights in American forests, hills, meadows, and riverbanks, Underwood explores the “potential of the ordinary.”

He says with lighting the landscapes can become as dramatic as a stage or movie set. “By reading the landscape and altering the vista through lights and photographic effects, I transform everyday scenes into unique images.”

Light and color, he adds, also change our perception of the spaces, transforming nature scenes into something very different. “Space collapses, while the lights that I install appear as intrusions and interventions. This combination renders the forms in the landscape abstract.”

Underwood hopes that his photographs are both “surreal and familiar.” The meaning of it all? “Elusive and mystifying.”

Explore Underwood’s landscape photography and see uncropped versions of the images above.

Also, check out how Amsterdam-based artist Berndnaut Smilde is using another medium – clouds – to create spooky environmental art indoors.

Image credit: (1) Trace, Yellow (2008) (2) Aurora, Green (2007), (3) Rodeo Beach (2009), (4) Trace, Blue (2008) / Barry Underwood

Green Infrastructure Goes Large in New York

In 2010, New York City released an ambitious green infrastructure plan to spur investment in green roofs and streets, bioswales, and other natural systems to manage stormwater. Just last month, New York State and city officials announced a broad-reaching financing agreement was reached that will commit more than $2.4 billion in public and private investment towards the plan over the next 18 years, with $187 million to be spent over the next three years, reports The New York Times’ Green blog. New York City now joins Philadelphia, Toronto, D.C., and a few other cities now making serious financial investments in applying nature to solve expensive infrastructural challenges.

Green infrastructure can help cities shore-up outdated combined stormwater and sewer systems, which tend to overflow in heavy storm events. In heavy rain, sewage overwhelms these systems and excrement enters water supplies. Because stormwater then can’t enter the drains, contaminant-laden water just sits on streets, funneling towards waterways as well. These overflows are a big problem in New York and one reason so many waterways don’t meet federal standards for fishing, swimming, and healthy habits for wildlife, writes The New York Times. With green infrastructure, water is captured onsite so it doesn’t overload those old pipe systems, which are prohibitively expensive to replace in major cities.

While the Enviromental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) has been re-evaluating its national rules on green infrastructure (and even asked for ASLA’s help in evaluating the benefits of these systems), few states have gotten behind these approaches yet. So the fact that New York State has supported New York City is a major win for using green infrastructure to meet federal water quality standards. According to the state and city, the new green infrastructure investments will eliminate 1.5 billion gallons of sewer overflow annually by 2030, while 12 billion gallons will be kept out of New York’s waterways through combined green and grey infrastructure systems, saving the state and city loads of money in the process.

A significant portion of the $187 million near-term investment will go to bioswales, targeting the areas of heavy “outfalls.” These bioswales are effectively trees set in extra-deep pits and surrounded by vegetation and low curbs to encourage water absorption. As Capital New York reports, more than 100 are in the works for 2012, using an approved “Right-of-way Bioswale” standard model settled on by the city government’s many departments. That model came out of some 20 test sites established throughout the city.

Of course, landscape architects, who will design and implement these systems, are fans. Nette Compton, ASLA, a landscape architect who runs the green infrastructure department in the NYC Parks and Recreation department, said: “I love bioswales. Bioswales are as close to a natural system as we can get on a New York City street.” Compton told Capital New York that each of the new bioswales will cost $13,000 but “costs may go down” as the city scales up the standard model.

Some of those first bioswales were put in Gowanus Canal last November. The four there now are expected to keep 7,200 gallons out of the canal, one of the worst polluted waterways in the U.S. The city also seems to be smart about tree placement and diversity in order to protect against bugs and disease. And the benefits may go beyond simply environmental value: the bioswales alone are expected to bring in $400 million in new taxes by improving property value. Still, others think the city still needs to work on the standard bioswale model, arguing that the soil volumes used just aren’t enough.

Learn more about NYC’s progress in implementing its green infrastructure plans.

Also, check out ASLA’s animations on green infrastructure and urban forests, a resource guide, along with 450+ green infrastructure case studies, designed to provide the E.P.A. with data on the many environmental and economic benefits of these systems.

Image credit: Bioswale / NYC Environmental Protection

The Dean of Diversity

In honor of National Landscape Architecture Month, the April issue of
Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) is free. Also, be sure to check out the new LAM Web site.

The Dean of Diversity

At Cal Poly Pomona, Michael Woo can see change coming to an overwhelmingly white profession.

As the dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona, Michael Woo is bringing up one of the most diverse student bodies in design and preparing the students for professions, including landscape architecture, that are not historically very diverse. As it happens, the school’s landscape architecture students are prolific winners of ASLA student awards—they have won as many as Penn’s students (14) and more than Harvard’s (12) in the past five years. Woo spoke with LAM recently about his personal and work background and its impact on his leadership.

You were the first trained urban planner and the first Asian American elected to the Los Angeles City Council. What does that background bring to Cal Poly?

First of all, it gives me some real-life experience and understanding of how the political process works. And I have direct experience in knowing how government makes decisions that have a direct effect on parks, rivers, housing developments, and the way the environment is shaped.

Your father came to California as an immigrant and a farmer and worked his way up. You, in the second generation, are dean at a large state college and a former local politician. Do you see that transition, which happened within your family, happening to students here?

This is one of the great challenges, not just at Cal Poly, but in our society. How do you provide upward mobility for people who otherwise would lack opportunities? I tend to think the history of my family is part of the history of California. In the mid to late 20th century, there were lots of opportunities fueled by the system of public higher education. Here the student body is overwhelmingly Latino and Asian American; the proportions are roughly one-third Latino, one-third Asian, and one-third white. While the landscape architecture profession is still primarily white, I think that our university is on the cutting edge of adding diversity to that profession.

Cal Poly Pomona is a “Hispanic-Serving Institution.” What does that mean and how does it translate into academics and programs?

This term Hispanic-Serving Institution, or HSI, is a federal government term that refers to the percentage of students attending this university who are of a Hispanic background. And that makes Cal Poly Pomona eligible for certain kinds of grants that would otherwise not be available. Not only do we have a high percentage of Hispanic students, but a lot of the students who come to Cal Poly are the first in their families to go to college. Many of the students work during the day, so any kinds of grants and financial assistance really make a big difference.

In spite of financial challenges and limited resources, your landscape architecture students take a large share of the student ASLA awards. Why do you think this is?

We are very proud of the accomplishments of our landscape architecture students. Our students demonstrate lots of energy and enthusiasm, and they don’t allow themselves to be overshadowed by other schools.

Here you have a great resource in the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies. How are the programs integrated into the academic curriculum?

The Lyle Center offers a master’s degree in regenerative studies, and to help integrate into the broader university, it also offers a minor in regenerative studies. The minor frequently gives opportunities for students in other departments, and with other majors, to start to explore what regeneration means.

How is regenerative studies specifically tied into the curriculum to provide design solutions that are specific to the problems of Southern California?

Let me try to answer this two ways. The master’s degree program in regenerative studies is by definition an interdisciplinary program. I think that being serious about sustainability does require an interdisciplinary approach. The other part of my answer is, to relate to the real world, we have to go beyond classroom or studio instruction—and to get our students and faculty involved in projects outside the university, because there is a sense that there is a lot of demand in the real world for professionalism and expertise relating to sustainability. Sometimes I feel the university is running to catch up with the demand.

In addition to the interdisciplinary approach of the Lyle Center, the program gives students a framework to apply not only to their academic exercises but to their future professional work.

It is not just the landscape architects, architects, and planners who should be thinking in terms of sustainability; it also needs to be engineers, traffic engineers, and civil engineers. We need to involve biologists, chemists, and other people in science. It would be a good idea if we had a stronger partnership with the College of Business Administration. Just think about the roles people with MBAs have. The job of a school is not just to prepare trained professionals. Part of our job is to train clients or the audiences to know the right questions to ask.

The students at Cal Poly are, as you mentioned, well trained to go out and become good workers. Do you think that presents a challenge to your students here to becoming leaders?

This is a great challenge, but in landscape architecture we have produced many of the leaders of the profession. Where our students or graduates go head-to-head with graduates from famous schools, our students and graduates do very well. So the challenge is how to create that opportunity.

Jennifer Zell, ASLA, is a landscape architect and principal at Zola in Long Beach, California.