Venhaus cites the common definition of sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). She further describes sustainability as a recognition of the interdependency of the environment, human health, and the economy. Venhaus argues that sustainable landscapes need to be regenerative, not only easing environmental damage but actively reversing it. In order for a design to be regenerative, we cannot simply add sustainable elements to the end of a conventional design. Instead, ecological systems must be integrated into every step of the design process. For this reason, Venhaus has written a book that is aimed not only at landscape architects but also planners, architects, contractors, and home gardeners.
Designing the Sustainable Site is a broad introduction to a variety of concepts and tools, most of which will be quite familiar to landscape architects. The book discusses, among other things, how to assemble multi-disciplinary design teams, write construction documents, conduct site analysis, and formulate maintenance plans. The remaining bulk of the book is devoted to “Sustainable Solutions,” which mostly reads as an overview of current sustainable design technologies. These chapters cover techniques for addressing air pollution, water pollution, flooding, water conservation, invasive species, and loss of biodiversity.
Experienced landscape architects are not necessarily Venhaus’s target audience. Instead, Designing the Sustainable Site could be an introductory textbook for students of planning, architecture, or landscape architecture. In many ways, this book looks and reads like a textbook: it’s full of diagrams that are clear, legible, but uninspiring. More successful than the diagrams are the extensive, photographically-documented case studies of residential sustainable design. These case studies begin to communicate the aesthetic potential of sustainable design, lending the book a bit of graphic interest.
By stressing the importance of integrative design – working sustainability into all aspects of a project – Venhaus makes it clear that sustainability falls across multiple disciplines. While the concepts presented in this book may be obvious to landscape architects, unfortunately they may be news to other design professionals and much of the public. By specifically addressing residential landscapes and small-scale sites, Venhaus moves sustainability out of the exclusive domain of landscape architects and into the hands of anyone involved in the design and building process, including all those prospective clients.
“From water waves to light waves, the same patterns emerge across all scales of space and time,” writes Sosolimited and Plebian Design, who created Patterned by Nature, a wonderful installation for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Natural Research Center in Raleigh. An animated “scupltural ribbon” weaves through the museum’s plaza. Sequences flow through migrating small birds to a flock of noisy geese. Drops of water transform into ocean waves, and then, beneath the waves, we see the pulsating skin of a cuttlefish. The museum writes: “The exhibit celebrates our abstraction of nature’s infinite complexity into patterns through the scientific process and through our perceptions.”
The ribbon, which is about 90 feet long and 10 feet wide, winds itself through a 5-story atrium. The installation is made up of 3,600 LCD glass tiles. Amazingly, the whole thing runs on 75 watts, about the same amount of energy needed to power a laptop.
While the clip above shows just a few snippets of the full animation, there are actually twenty sequences. According to the museum and design team, these range from “clouds to rain drops to colonies of bacteria to flocking birds to geese to cuttlefish skin to pulsating black holes.” Real footage of nature and “algorithmic software modeling of natural phenomena” were used to create the fascinating visuals. There are also eight different soundtracks, corresponding to different parts of nature.
For another, perhaps somewhat more disturbing animation of nature, see a project by Ivan Henriques and Professor Bert van Duijn from the Netherlands’ Leiden University. Fast Company says Mimosa pudica is “one of the few plants in the world that can sense touch stimulus and move its leaves immediately in response.” Henriques, with the help of the professor, “upgraded the plant’s responsiveness with the capabilities of a motorized wheelchair.”
In his new book, Woodcut, artist Bryan Nash Gill displays wood stump prints that read as personal histories. In the book’s introduction, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes op-eds for The New York Times, describes how “Gill’s art – his ability to capture the individuality of these trees – is a reminder that there is something generic or platonic in the mere working out of the life force in each organism. What separates each organism and gives it its distinctive, living shape is experience.” In other words, the form of the tree results from its history, with each experience registered in its interior rings. Through a process of cutting, sanding, and burning, Gill makes this history legible; each print reveals lifetime of interactions with human and non-human forces.
In Spruce, 2008, we see that this tree was 97 years old when it died. It had a branch cut at age twenty, and a metal spike was driven into it when it was thirty. The white lines are tunnel holes from insect invasions, typical of soft-wood species such as Norway spruce. The pruned branch and metal spike reveal interactions with humans, and the insect scars reveal interactions with nature. All of these factors result in the form of the tree. However, the print itself is just as much a product of Gill’s creative process as it is the tree itself.
The progression from wood to wood block to print represents a series of creative decisions. Gill salvages wood from anywhere he can find it including his own property and local farms. He chooses his wood based on the qualities he’s interested in investigating. Once he has found an appropriate piece of wood, he will cut it up with a chainsaw, paying particular attention to areas within the wood that he finds interesting. This process transforms the wood into a wood block. He continues cutting until he is satisfied.
In preparation for print, the block undergoes a treatment of sanding and burning as well as additional manipulation with a variety of tools. The exact method of preparation depends on the species of tree and the quality of the wood. Next, the wood block is inked. This is not a simple matter of applying ink but instead a subjective decision based on Gill’s aesthetic judgment. Gill writes, “the print is not a fingerprint of the wood; it’s not a stamp. It’s the feel of the wood that I’m after.” Similarly, the choices of paper and printing process are artistic choices. Therefore, the resulting print is not simply documentation of the life of a tree but an aesthetic object in its own right. In the print below, Southport Oak, we see a series of cracks that resulted from the block air drying in Gill’s studio.
Abstracted from their source, the tree rings form beautiful printed patterns. Gill’s process heightens the contrast of the rings, allowing his prints to achieve a level of intricacy and detail that does not exist on a typical piece of cut wood. Still, Gill never allows his work to become completely abstracted from its origin: each print indicates the species and age of the original tree.
This relationship between nature and art is central to landscape architecture. Landscapes are continually shaped by human and non-human processes. It’s through intentional design that a landscape becomes an aesthetic object. While at first glance Gill’s prints are unbiased reproductions of natural objects, they are actually highly designed art pieces, just as much about Gill’s own artistic impulses as they are about the trees. In the same way, while a park may appear to be natural, it’s actually the aesthetic result of an intentional design.
In addition to bridging the gap between art and nature, Gill’s work is a reminder that people and nature are interconnected, often in invisible ways. Interactions with human and non-human forces influence the forms of trees, and these histories are permanently registered in their rings. Sometimes the relationship between people and nature can become convoluted. In the case of Cedar Pole, Gill’s print reveals a mundane telephone pole to be built from a 200+ year old cedar tree.
Just as trees are influenced by a variety of human and non-human forces, we are subject not only to dealings with other people but the ecology of our surrounding environment. While we do not create rings to register our experiences, our lives are still influenced by a variety of daily interactions with a host of cultural and ecological processes. The design of our landscapes facilitates these interactions.
Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast serves not only as an absorbing field guide to spontaneous urban plants but also as a razor-sharp critique of how we value urban plants in general. In clear, jargon-free language, Del Tredici lays out his challenge to our ecological assumptions in the book’s introduction. He describes how we have a tendency to negatively judge plants that grow without human intention. Indeed, most of the plants described in this book are traditionally dismissed as weeds. Furthermore, we negatively judge plants based on their place of origin, labeling non-native species as “invasive.” Del Tredici argues that by automatically tagging these spontaneous urban plants as ecologically harmful, we ignore their potential benefits.
The entire concept of native and non-native becomes complicated when we consider the reality of urban conditions. Del Tredici challenges the notion that native plants can always be restored in urban landscapes, writing “(1) most urban land has been totally transformed from what it once was; (2) the climate conditions that the original flora was adapted to no longer exist; and (3) most urban habitats are strictly human creations with no natural analogs and no indigenous flora.” Cities represent entirely new conditions that native species are not necessarily adapted to. For this reason, native plants often require extensive human management to survive. Accordingly, Del Tredici dismisses the concept of urban ecological restoration as “really just gardening dressed up to look like ecology.” Instead, the plants that thrive in cities are already evolutionarily adapted for harsh conditions. Because they grow in cities without human input, they are, in a sense, the natural urban flora. These species can deliver significant benefits to urban ecosystems and should not be disregarded. For example, these species reduce the urban heat island effect, protect against erosion, stabilize stream banks, manage stormwater, create wildlife habitat, produce oxygen, and store carbon.
By challenging the way we value urban plans, the book forces us to reconsider how we design our urban landscapes. For this reason, the book is of particular relevance to landscape architects, though it is not specifically written for them. Discussions of sustainability frequently involve the use of native species, but how sustainable is a landscape that requires frequent maintenance? After all, plants that grow and flourish without human intervention are, by definition, sustainable.
Del Tredici touches on some landscape strategies that utilize spontaneous vegetation. These strategies involve the employment of selective editing – the targeted removal of certain undesirable species – to guide spontaneous plant growth to a desired result. He brings up the possibility of the spontaneously generated green roofs, high-performance urban meadows, and ecologically beneficial lawn alternatives. The design implications for spontaneous vegetation are vast and far beyond the scope of this book. For instance, spontaneous vegetation could be a tool for inexpensively transforming vacant urban areas into ecologically and socially beneficial spaces. Old industrial cities such as Detroit and Buffalo already grapple with the phenomenon of the “urban prairie.” Can these maligned spaces be turned into assets? Of course, any strategy utilizing spontaneous vegetation would need to fully address issues of safety, health and aesthetics. In New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, a post-Katrina proliferation of spontaneous vegetation is generally seen as a threat to the neighborhood’s viability. Is there a way we can selectively edit this vegetation to benefit, instead of threaten, the neighborhood?
Del Tredici follows his eloquent 30-page introduction with the bulk of the book: a 300-page field guide to spontaneous urban plants. Each species gets a full page of text and a full page of images; by giving these plants visibility, he makes them impossible to ignore. Significantly, in addition to basic identification and habitat preference, each plant is described in terms of its positive ecological and cultural significance. These descriptions make the field guide an entertaining read and elevate it far beyond a simple tool for plant identification. Del Tredici deliberately omits any negative ecological qualities that these plants may have; the book aims to challenge our perceptions of these plants, not necessarily provide a balanced perspective.
By refusing to address any negative ecological consequences of these species, the book does lose some of its utility to landscape designers. While hinting at the potential of spontaneous urban species in landscape design, it does not work as a guide to their use. Similarly, while the book does bring up the strategy of selectively editing plant species, it does not describe how to kill them. While this information is useful and necessary, it is beyond the scope of the book. Written for a general audience, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast is not intended as a guide to designing with spontaneous vegetation. Instead, it serves both as an eye-opening guide to plants often overlooked, and as a challenge to our notions of nature and the way we determine the value of plants.
In a culture where any alternative to the lawn can be controversial, we need to change the perception of wild greenery before we can design with it. Del Tredici strives “to teach people how to identify the plants that are growing in urban areas, and to counter the widespread perception that these plants are ecologically harmful or useless and should be eliminated.” In this aim, he resoundingly succeeds.
The new issue of Architype Review focuses on parks, the spaces designed to explored on foot, and pavilions, the spots from which visitors can take a moment to sit and enjoy the landscape. Some of the best pavilions compliment their setting, creating a unique presence and vantage point. They fundamentally respect the environment while providing a new texture.
As ASLA president Susan Hatchell, FASLA, writes in an op-ed for the issue, “pavilions are an important part of getting people outside. Landscape architects place these shelters to entice people to walk to them, and they are often sited to afford wonderful views to the landscape beyond. Pavilions provide a place to rest along the way, as well as shade to shield us from too much exposure to the sun. They are designed to be accessible, so that all ages and abilities can enjoy a wonderful outdoor setting. Pavilions provide a central location for meeting up with friends, as well as large family reunions. They also serve as outdoor classrooms or performance spaces, or as a quiet place for reading, sketching, or playing a musical instrument while enjoying outdoors.”
A few pavilions highlighted by Architype Review:
Inner Forest by Mexican architect Ivan Juarez (see image above and immediately below) sits within the fjord landscape on the west coast of Norway. Designed in collaboration with the Nordic Artists’ Centre at Dalsåsen, Juarez’s pavilion creates a “connection to the fjords landscape by collecting up materials from the forest floor, mainly pine cones, a material that acquires a symbolic connotation, and carefully stacking them to make an enclosure that wraps the viewer in the textures of the forest while directing the view upward, through the canopy to open sky.”
The highly sustainable pavilion, which is surely meant to degrade naturally over time, demonstrates the process of building structures, too. The architects had to walk through the forest collecting thousands of pine cones to make the place.
Another amazing project created in nature-loving Norway by architecture firm Snohetta is an observation and information pavilion designed to enable visitors to safely interact with local wildlife. In Dovre, Norway, the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Foundation asked the firm to create a shelter for school groups and visitors, a space where guides could give lectures about the unique animals and history of the Dovre mountain plateau.
Snohetta writes: “Dovrefjell is home to wild reindeer herds, musk oxen, arctic foxes and a variety of endemic botanical species. A long history filled with travellers, hunting traditions, mining and military activities have left their mark on this land. Dovrefjell also holds significant importance in the consciousness of Norway. National legends, myths, poetry, music, and pilgrimages celebrate the mystic, eternal, and grounded qualities of this robust place. The founding fathers of the Norwegian constitution are ‘agreed and faithful, until the fall of Dovre!'”
On the building itself, they tell us that “a wooden core is placed within a rectangular frame of raw steel and glass. The core, shaped like rock or ice, is eroded by natural forces like wind and running water. Considerable emphasis is put on the quality and durability of materials so that the building can withstand the harsh climate. The wood core was manufactured using a large scale robot-controlled milling machine based on digital 3D models.”
In Surface Deep, a project organized by the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) landscape architecture department, landscape architecture and architecture grad students united to create an installation near the entry of the Reford Gardens’ Metis International Garden Festival in Quebec that is both a structure and landscape. It’s something to be climbed on.
The student team writes: “The surface is intended to invite visitors to find many personal ways to engage, colonize and interact with the garden (from interacting with its micro moss surface to appropriating the whole surface as a ground). The surface flips in function and association between a wall, a ground, and a cover, while creating multiple orientations and different microclimates for the moss garden.”
The shapes and curves created a number of microclimates, which then informed the type of moss used in each cranny. “The first 11 units were made with Niphotrichum canescens (a sun-loving species). Unit 12 is planted with Callicladium haldanianum, while the other units remaining (13 to 22) were made with a mixture of Callicladium haldanianum and other shade-loving, forest species such as Pleurozium schreberii, Ptilium crista-castrensis and others.”
Who knew that wildlife refuges are actually “economic engines” in disguise? A recent study by North Carolina State University researchers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that metro-area homes near wildlife refuges are worth more than those farther away from these havens. The report surveyed homes in urban areas near refuges in the Northeast, Southeast, and California-Nevada region. The report didn’t include the Southwest because reserves there tend to be too far from dense, urban cores.
While many developers have known for some time that being near to open space somewhat improves property values — with natural parks and woodlands providing the most value — perhaps it’s less known that wildlife refuges have a greater impact. According to The New York Times’Green blog, “for homes that are less than a half-mile from a wildlife refuge and within eight miles of an urban center, property values were 7 to 9 percent higher on average in the Southeast and 4 to 5 percent higher in the Northeast. In the California-Nevada area, such homes were worth 3 to 6 percent more.” This is far higher than the average 2.8 percent increase in property value associated with simply being near open space.
In many neighborhoods, this isn’t chump change. The 36 refuges the researchers examined were found to increase local property values by a whopping $300 million, meaning benefits for both homeowners and local communities’ tax offices. So, really, the case may be made that wildlife refuges actually pay for themselves.
The New York Times writes that this report may be defense against House Republicans who “would like to see federal lands sold off to raise money and to encourage development.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of better making the case with real data to everyone.
As part of the effort, the Fish and Wildlife Service will update its analysis of the economic impacts of refuges in terms of tourist spending. One of their studies found that “34.8 million visits to American wildlife refuges in fiscal 2006 generated $1.7 billion in sales, nearly 27,000 jobs and $542.8 million in employment income in regional economies.”
Trust-worthy data can help establish the understanding that wildlife refuges not only provide critical value for migrating and often endangered species but also help people and communities. While landscape architects and other working in environmental design and ecological restoration understand the inherent biological value of wildlife reserves, in many communities facing huge budget crunches, the economic case must also be made for investing in places just for wildlife, whether they are natural sites, restored ones, or even designed from scratch.
Adam Greenspan, ASLA, Peter Walker and Partners, and Robert Rogers, Rogers Marvel Architects, said Constitution Gardens is unlike any other place on the Mall, offering a break from the “formality” of the monumental structures and spaces. Unfortunately, though, the gardens, which were created by architecture firm SOM and landscape architect Dan Kiley in the 1960s, are “dying,” said Greenspan. Hundreds of trees have collapsed over the years and been replaced. The soils have “slumped” and the edge of Kiley’s concrete-lined pond has fallen apart.
The original design was inspired by Roberto Burle Marx’s “biomorphic modernism.” Honoring the past design intent, Greenspan said he liked “that it’s an alternate reality, or that it should be.” To enhance this sense of separation from the Mall, the design team raised the outer edge near the street, bringing the grade up by 8 feet in order to create that “ensconced feeling” and block out traffic noises. Paths will cut through the raised grades, creating more defined access points. “There will now be clear entries into the garden,” said Rogers.
The entire space will be dug out and rebuilt to be a “regenerative landscape.” The soils will be reconstructed to provide a more solid foundation for a range of new plants. The majority of spaces will be meadows and lawns, with some woodlands, and new wetland plants ringing the outer edge of a new pond. Plant and animal life will be self-contained within the new gardens. Trees that can survive will be reused. Specimen trees will be moved to new spots. The lake water itself will now funnel in through the Lincoln reflecting pool and will be designed so it can be periodically flushed out with fresh water from the Tidal Basin. It won’t just be an ecological wonderland though; it will also be beautiful. “At the edge of the pond, there will be an aesthetic ecology,” with “clear sweeps of color.”
Within the man-made pond, a new reflecting pool, a circle, will act as a separate basin. There, a ring around the circle will enable kids to launch toy boats. In winter, that part can be turned into a skating rink. This won’t be a tiny spot for a single loop though. Greenspan said the skating rink is “hockey rink-sized.”
Rogers said a new pavilion will be built on the site of the original SOM proposal, but be brought closer to the lake to create a “dynamic engagement with the water.” A clear frame of a building — a “simple thing you move through for circulation” — will provide a “threshhold moment” for visitors. There, large sets of stairs will help the National Park Service better handle the crowds. The upper level, which will include a restaurant for both tourists and locals alike, will offer a “respite, a view out onto the gardens.”
The goal of the design is to “maintain the clean, clear geometry of the lake,” said Greenspan, while “maintaining the optimism of Modernism on the Mall.” As seasons change, paths will also emerge through the trees to the nearby Vietnam War memorial. Still, this is a new place. “With the change in vertical grade, planting systems, we will change the vibe.”
The National Mall is the nation’s “center stage,” a vital place for “communion,” said Marion Weiss, Weiss/Manfredi, the architecture firm on the project. Originally intended to be the place where the dynamism of Shakespeare Theatre was brought to the Mall, the Sylvan Theatre has a “great history.” While the team will respect that history, Skip Graffam, ASLA, OLIN, said the team will also “charter a future course for the site.”
The Sylvan Theatre is at the edge of “very popular spaces” on the Mall so it needs to be flexible and resilient to foot traffic and concert use. It’s also a challenged site because that’s where all the tour buses park, spilling out many of the 24 million tourists who visit the Mall each year. Focusing on the site as an edge, Graffam said one of the key design goals was to better connect the site to the Tidal Basin, while also enabling different sized crowds. Their vision laid out how the space could expand to hold 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 concert goers through a bowl shape, peeled-up to hide the buses and facilities behind. The new bowl-shaped amphitheatre will “open its arms to the Washington Monument.”
A Sylvan Grove will help extend the tree canopy and connect the trees of the Mall and Tidal Basin. The team is also taking advantage of opportunities to “reconnect the southern monument grounds to the waterfront” so more people can access the water and nature. Elm trees, set in boscs and allees, will serve as a foundation for a new habitat designed for both people and nature. “There’s also a conservation element. We’re removing 60 percent of the turf,” said Graffam.
The back-side of the peeled-up amphitheatre will serve as a “gateway,” with a pavilion shrouded in landscape. Rain garden-covered roofs will help keep the “topography low.” Within the facilities, there’s a new cafe that mimics the grove, with roof structures that create the effect of light pouring through a forest.
Weiss thinks the new space can be a “high-performance landscape,” providing both a space for performances and many types of biophilic experiences. “The site can be magical.”
“This is a site with identity problems,” said Peter Cook, Davis Brody Bond, the architect working with landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) on Union Square. “Where is it? No one knows.” In fact, it’s the 27-acre space that holds the 6-acre reflecting pool right in front of the Capitol building. Over 200 years, the site has evolved. French architect and urban planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the city with African American surveyor Benjamin Banneker, saw the spot as a public space, a plaza for the masses. Later plans covered the site in trees. Only with the McMillan plan was the Mall — and all that public space — created and the fountain and plaza brought back. At that point, the “site became an extension of the Mall,” though, losing its identity.
At its best, the space is a “grand gesture,” which gives visual form to the Capitol, said Rodrigo Abela, ASLA, the landscape architect who runs GGN’s east coast projects. But, mostly, it’s a “underwhelming, underutilized site” that hasn’t lived up to its potential for “very powerful experiences.” The site is part of the critical line running through the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial so this project is crucial.
GGN and Davis Brody Bond’s design “takes the full square and breaks it into parts.” To keep the monumentality of the Mall, there’s a new reflecting pool, much narrower than the current one. Two national gardens on either side better knit the site into existing pathways to Union Station, the Mall, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s undulating Capitol Hill grounds. Breaking the site up introduces “multiple scales” and provides “greater definition to an amorphous space.” Now, there’s a “space that draws you in.”
Zooming into the terraces (above) that now line the central reflecting pool, you can see the 3-foot grades that lead down to the water, which sub-divide the spaces and offer increased security. The water itself will now be changeable. There are cascading pools running perpindicular to the east end of the grand water-scape. Jets can be turned on on weekends and used for special events. Walkways enable visitors to now walk through the pools, instead of hoofing it all the way around the edges. One or more areas of the water can be turned off, expanding the space for public events or protests. “Flexible spaces enable a diversity of expression,” something the current design fails to do.
Reducing the depth of the water to 2-inches means far less water will need to be collected from nearby buildings and underground. The team argues this makes the new feature far more sustainable (and beautiful). Indeed, right now, the reflecting pool is a great place to see dead birds and trash floating. The goal is to create a “high-performing space” that can be used 24/7.
After the presentations, Beardsley asked pointed questions, wondering whether the new designs truly are more sustainable, considering the designers almost all introduce more complex planting and stormwater management systems. Given the National Park Service barely has the funds and capacity to handle what’s there now, can the new systems work? The design teams argued that turf is actually harder to manage than more ecological systems. Also, the introduction of dedicated hardscapes — paths for people — mean “the plantings can be given a chance to survive.” These days, so much of the vegetation looks trampled, under siege from the hordes of tourists.
Can the designs accomodate future unexpected uses?, Beardsley wondered. Rogers said “creating focused, controlled entry points” will help limit those unexpected uses. Beardsley also asked whether the new buildings proposed in all sites will alter the careful balance struck on the Mall, which tilts in favor of the landscape. Weiss says her buildings, at least, “submit to the larger landscape. We respect the broader landscape, putting the Monument at center stage.” Rogers thinks his new pavilion in Constitution Gardens is “just enough building,” and given it’s set within the tree canopy, “doesn’t engage with the rest of the Mall.” There were more questions about lighting, the economics of these spaces, and security, which will all need to be answered once the money is raised and designs move towards implementation.
Image credits:(1-5) Constitution Gardens / Peter Walker and Partners and Rogers Marvel Architects, (6-10)The Washington Monument Grounds at Sylvan Theatre / Weiss/Manfredi and OLIN, (11-15) Union Square / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol and Davis Brody Bond