Designing Neighborhoods for People and Wildlife

Watch a new animation from ASLA’s “Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes” online exhibition that explains how to transform your property into a real wildlife habitat. Learn how native plants and designed structures provide what nature needs.

Wildlife habitat can be destroyed by development, farms, or mines; or degraded by invasive species, climate change, or pollution so it no longer supports native wildlife. Sprawl has increased the rate of habitat loss. One estimate says U.S. forest land the size of Pennsylvania will be consumed by expanding cities by 2050. But insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals still all need habitat: food, water, cover, and places to raise their young. Unfortunately, with sprawl, native wildlife now has fewer places to call home. (Sources: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Doug Tallamy, Timber Press, 2009; “Sustaining America’s Trees and Forests,” David J. Nowak, Susan M. Stein, Paula B. Randler, Eric J. Greenfield, Sara J. Comas, Mary A. Carr, and Ralph J. Alig, U.S. Forest Service; and “Habitat Loss,” National Wildlife Federation)

Many natural areas are now too small to sustain native species for long. The long-term survival of many species depends on recreating connections. Birds, turtles and reptiles, frogs and other amphibians, foxes, and other mammals all need safe passage through neighborhoods and places to raise their young within them. Corridors need to be protected where species are already using them. Wider, more continuous corridors work for a greater range of species. A recent study argues that organically-formed corridors are more successful than easements along a street or utility line. (Sources: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Doug Tallamy, Timber Press, 2009; “Interview with Kristina Hill, Ph.D., Affiliate ASLA,” American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) interview series; and “Designing Wildlife Corridors: Wildlife Need More Complex Travel Plans,” Science Daily, 2008.)

Habitat loss, and the corresponding loss of biodiversity, doesn’t have to continue. Communities can connect their properties into networks of attractive, wildlife-friendly neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Starting with homeowners’ properties, fragmented habitats can be rewoven together, creating neighborhoods that are not only healthier for wildlife but also for people. Many residential landscape architects are helping to stem the losses by creating beautiful neighborhoods that provide habitat for many species. (Sources: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Doug Tallamy, Timber Press, 2009; “Garden for Wildlife,” National Wildlife Federation; and Audubon At Home, Audubon Society)

Increased biodiversity has its own benefits: These landscapes maintain themselves without fertilizers or water that lawns need. Also, biodiverse residential landscapes are not only beautiful, but help families see the wonder of nature close to home. As scientists are now proving, just being out in nature, seeing plants, and hearing bird song reduces stress and improves mood. (Sources: Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®). “Research Shows Nature Helps with Stress,” The Dirt blog; “Does Looking at Nature Make People Nicer?,” The Dirt blog; and “The Restorative Effects of Nature in Cities,” The Dirt blog)

Warren Byrd, Jr: “I Don’t Do Drugs. I Do Design Competitions.”

Design competitions are a big component to the profession of landscape architecture. Many firms, whether in an effort to maintain their high-profile statuses or to propel their smaller firms into the big leagues, will enter these competitions. At the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, University of Virginia; Donald Stastny, FAIA, STASTNY: architect llc; and Warren Byrd, Jr., FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects sat down to discuss the current state of design competitions and their place in the discipline of landscape architecture. The focus was primarily on the competition as a means of design exploration, a strategic tool for remaking urban landscapes, and an opportunity for positioning landscape architects as multidisciplinary team leaders.

Meyer, who has recently been appointed to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts by President Obama, was the first presenter on the subject of design competitions. She has extensive experience as a competition juror on the national level, including the recent Trust for the National Mall’s design competition in D.C. Meyer does not see competitions as a platform solely to honor winners, but also as a driver of new ideas that advance the state of the design professions and multidisciplinary discourse.  In reference to Rem Koolhaus’ submission for the Parc de la Villette design competition in 1982 (see image above), she said “some of the most important entries did not win. OMA was not selected because the jury was afraid of it.”

Meyer also spoke of TerraGRAM’s submission to the High Line Ideas Competition in 2003. Although TerraGRAM’s team (lead by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and D.I.R.T. Studio) did not win the job, their ideas lived through the project. “TerraGRAM’s submission is the driver of the third phase of the High Line,” alluding to the proposal to retain the opportunistic planting palette planned for the final phase of the park. “A competition is a snapshot of generational concerns.” In this case, restoration is the driver, and the competition entries are indicative of that concern.

Stastny is as intimately familiar with architectural competitions as anyone. As a practicing architect, urban designer, and process facilitator for over forty years, he’s recognized as one of the preeminent design competition advisors and managers in North America. He understands the design competition process and what constitutes a successful submission. Stastny believes that successful submissions are those that are multi-disciplinary in nature, and his competitions reflect that. He has most recently worked with The Waller Creek Competition, an international competition to redesign a 1.5 mile stretch of Waller Creek in downtown Austin, Texas. An amazing set of final proposals have been created.

Byrd also has extensive experience in the realm of architectural competitions. Byrd is interested in how competitions position urban landscapes as central to the remaking of cities. An innovative program, Greening America’s Capitals, a project of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which is made up of the E.PA., the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), aims to use design teams to help state capitals develop green building and green infrastructure strategies. Byrd is currently working on projects in both Little Rock, Arkansas, and Hartford, Connecticut.

Byrd and his firm spend ample time on competitions as he believes that they are a good way to keep his company current. Byrd’s firm won a prominent competition in Pennsylvania, the Flight 93 National Memorial, a competition that Stastny directed. In the end, Byrd is hungry and sees the competition as a way to keep his skills sharp and his firm in production. His belief is evident in his conclusion: “I don’t do drugs. I do competitions!”

This guest post is by Tyler Silvestro, a master’s degree candidate at the City College of New York (CUNY), and writer for
The Architect’s Newspaper.

Image credits: (1) OMA Proposal for Parc de Vilette / Georgia Tech, (2) TerraGRAM High Line proposal / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, D.I.R.T. Studio, Beyer Blinder Belle, (3) Waller Creek  / Waller Creek Design Competition.

Interview with Jeff Stein on Soleri’s Model Sustainable City

Jeff Stein, AIA, is president of the Cosanti Foundation. Stein has taught at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Wentworth Institute, and was dean of Boston Architectural College for seven years. He attended his first building workshop at Arcosanti in 1975.

Arcosanti is a living, experimental laboratory for the “arcology” theories of Italian architect, Paolo Soleri, who recently won the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement. Arcology, a literal joining of the words architecture and ecology, calls for a new alternative to today’s “hyperconsumption,” a self-reliant urban system that functions like a super-organism. How are the theories of arcology working out in practice out here in the desert at Arcosanti?

They’re working out really well but at a very small level. Arcosanti, some 42 years after it first was begun in 1970, is just a tiny fragment of what it intends to become — a town for a few thousand people. Right now, we’re at a population of a little less than 100. It’s pretty easy at that small scale to join architecture and ecology, but we have in mind some bigger ideas. While they certainly come from Paolo Soleri, they also come from Henry David Thoreau.

Before I moved to Arcosanti this past year, my wife and I lived near Walden Pond for about a decade. The contrast between that place and this is pretty interesting, but the ideas that Thoreau and Soleri both have had are pretty congruous. Thoreau said, “Give me a wildness no civilization can endure,” which isn’t quite what we’re after exactly, but you could understand his attitude back then. There is wildness that no civilization can endure. Instead what we’re after is trying to create the beginnings of a civilization that wildness can endure.

Here at Arcosanti we’re only building on a few acres of a 4,000 acre land preserve. Some 3,985 of those acres are intended to remain wild. While at the center there isn’t a group of hermits but a lively cultural center. Arcosanti is meant for a few thousand people– not just as retirees living in apartments who have to drive 20 miles for groceries — but a living, working community whose architecture is gaining some light and heat in the wintertime and shading itself in the summertime, and whose solar greenhouses are recycling organic waste and growing food for the population and producing heat energy to power the town itself.

You mentioned that the entire Arcosanti site is settled within an invaluable cultural landscape, including ancient pueblo dwellings and rock drawings. How does this historic landscape shape what you are practicing here today?

It’s a fascinating and historic landscape, one that has been populated for thousands of years, and yet there’s almost no trace of the population of literally thousands of people, who over many, many years, have lived on this same spot where we’re sitting right now for this interview. It’s always been that way. I’m thinking now of a Spanish gentleman explorer, Alvar de Vaca, whose gallion was washed ashore near Galveston, Texas, around 1528. He and two of his companions walked around Texas. They went up into New Mexico back down to the Rio Grande in Mexico, between 1528 and 1536. They were never on their own by themselves ever in those eight years. They were always on well-trodden paths. There were trails. They were always well taken care of by people in villages and communities that they happened upon. It was an entirely settled landscape, and yet there’s almost no trace of those settlers at this time– only another 500 years later.

We’re trying to be cognizant of the historic landscape and preserve almost all of it. We can find out some things about the people who lived here before based on the little amount of ruins and petroglyphs and signs of their civilization that are still here, but we’re also somewhat trying to use them as a model for behavior. We’re not paving everything over with concrete and asphalt, and we’re not pumping all the oil out or digging all the coal out or transforming the landscape, except in a very tiny place where the center of this urban experiment, Arcosanti, is meant to be constructed.

Arcosanti uses just 25 acres of its 4,000-acre compound. The idea is to show visitors how a compact community looks when it lives in a landscape, but doesn’t sprawl out or take it over. The built Arcosanti site is 15 acres, with much of that landscaped. How does the landscape architecture reflect the theories of arcology? What are the benefits of the landscape you use?

The built landscape here is a working landscape. It’s not meant just to be viewed or walked through in a passive sort of way, but really functions, and relates to the buildings that it surrounds. The buildings are all about connection. Many of them have pretty rigorous curved shapes, and even some of them are in the form of the apse, a quarter of a sphere that when facing south, can shade itself in the summertime, and gather light and heat from the low winter sun. That curved form provides a really interesting social space in which people can experience each other. They can see each other work, people walking by. All these buildings at Arcosanti are about connecting people to each other and to a place.

The landscape architecture here isn’t trying as it has to do in many cities to soften the hard-edge built landscape or humanize it in some way. It is actually an outgrowth of it. A couple generations ago, Frank Lloyd Wright worked very hard in blurring the distinctions between inside and outside of his buildings. Even in his most modest houses, the Usonian houses, he would do things like drop a glass wall directly into a flower bed. The glass would extend to a foundation underneath the flower bed, but there are flowers growing inside. A big overhang would extend maybe six feet from the line of that glass wall so it was hard to tell if you were inside or outside. The landscape was making its way into the building, and yet your experience was making its way out of it. Paolo Soleri, the founder of Arcosanti, spent a year and a half working with Frank Lloyd Wright and took some of those interesting ideas away from his time with Wright.

The apse is attempting to construct a building that doesn’t separate you from your surroundings. The way it doesn’t do that is the fourth wall of the building is nonexistent. The apse provides shelter in which you can do most of your living and working out of doors year round in this climate: 3,700 feet, American Southwest. It works with the sun and seasons. The surrounding landscape becomes a part of your actual living space. You feel connected to the living things that are part of the landscape and to the landforms that have drawn you to this place.

Where we touch the earth with our architecture and landscape architecture, we really transform it into this urban condition of Arcosanti, but, otherwise, we’re leaving it alone entirely so that historic landscape that surrounds this place is in its natural form. Just lately, a film crew from Canada was here doing a piece from Canadian television about nature deficit disorder among young people in Western civilization. It’s a real and interesting issue in which young people aren’t outdoors, or if they are, they’re in this gridded rectilinear urban environment in which they don’t get a sense of seasons, plant life, or the patterns that nature provides. Back with Alvar de Vaca in Galveston, Texas, nature had always been the home of humans. We’re trying to rediscover what that means for us in miniaturized, densely-populated urban conditions that integrate nature and nature’s patterns into the living space.

The dense urban core also includes some fascinating public spaces– amphitheaters, plazas, streets, and gardens. How has Soleri and his designers approached the landscape architecture in the denser, more trafficked areas?

In the denser areas, there are moments where there are native plants growing right in front of somebody’s doorstep or trees that are grown for shade or for their fruit here and pretty well-tended, but, otherwise, it’s the desert areas or hardscape. In the tradition of an Italian hill town in which there aren’t streets and roads and parking lots within the populated townscape, there are pedestrian paths and stairways and sidewalks that are going through, but they’re hardscaped.

You can sit down almost anywhere. The walls of buildings are often designed so that they function as outdoor bleachers. The roofs of most buildings are accessible and you can get on top of them. There’s a little bit of roof gardening going on, but we don’t really have any substantial green roofs at Arcosanti yet. We have quite a few places that are earth-sheltered. We do harvest all the rainwater from our roofs. They slope at a really slight angle so that water can run off into cisterns. We use that for landscape watering.

Since the 1970s, the city has only grown. In fact, it seems to be constantly evolving with a whole new set of projects just this year. Can you talk about the new “greenhouse apron” prototype? How does this help the community reach its goals related to food production?

Arcosanti is in a really interesting landscape: the high desert of central Arizona at about 3,700 feet elevation, just on the edge of the Sonora Desert. It’s interesting in that about 2.5 billion people on the earth live in desert landscapes. That’s the first interesting thing. The second one is that while we’re the water planet, it appears that we’re becoming the desert planet pretty quickly, too, in that one third of all the deserts in the world have happened since 1900, mostly as a result of deforestation and overgrazing and humans drawing down water tables.

When we get to solve a problem for Arcosanti, we’re solving it for quite a large segment of the earth’s population. One of those problems is growing food in a desert. They call it a desert for a reason. We only get 15 inches of rainfall a year here at Arcosanti. It’s beautiful, there are canyons; there are flat plains. It looks like you could just plow that with a tractor, and start growing corn. In fact, you can’t do anything of the sort.

We’ve turned to greenhouses, an architectural solution for growing food. You don’t have to have thousands of acres of cropland out there to produce food for thousands of people. You can grow it very intensively in solar greenhouses, and in that case, it’s grown right on the doorstep of the town itself. The people who are, essentially, the farmers can be part of the town. They don’t have to live by their acreage, and because of the intensive style of tending the horticulture, you don’t need a lot of chemicals, insecticides, fertilizers.

You’re not only growing food, but you’re producing warm air in these greenhouses. You’ve probably noticed this no matter where you are, air under glass like under a skylight tends to get really warm when the sunshine’s on it. That’s what happens in solar greenhouses, too. If you don’t need hot air in the town directly, you can duct it off by opening some vents at the top of a sloping greenhouse, but, otherwise, you keep your vents closed and have that air come, and flow to warm up the infrastructure of the town itself.

We have a couple of small solar greenhouses attached to buildings here. One of them is attached to my apartment, and I can just open a little door in the bottom of my living room wall in the wintertime and this wonderfully fresh 120-degree air from plants and from the sun comes wafting into the apartment. It’s fragrant because plants are flowering, it is oxygenated because of the plants, and moist because the plants are transpiring moisture. Everybody should have this experience, but moisture is the main thing here. You can grow plants in a greenhouse, and as the plants transpire their moisture, it doesn’t get lost in the desert air, but it condenses again onto the greenhouse glass and can be recycled.

More ambitious project initiatives are also in the works. The “critical mass” master plan calls for the ability to house 500 people full-time in this landscape and running the community. Vertical garden walls will be added to new residential complexes, while greenhouses would create new micro-climates that will enable more self-sufficiency in all seasons. What’s the big future vision for Arcosanti? Where do you see it in 25 years?

You can do all the planning that you want, and we, certainly, are doing all the planning that we want to here on a daily basis at Arcosanti, but in the end, it’s conjecture. It’s dependent on so many outside forces. We’re not self-sufficient in terms of food growing, book publishing, clothes-making, or financial status here at Arcosanti. We have bootstrapped this entire project so far over 42 years by educational initiatives– the construction workshops, tourism, lectures, demonstrations, and the making of the famous Soleri wind bells as part of the economy here. We’re constantly looking for ways to expand the economy and for not only philanthropists, but for investors to become a part of the project. We have partners now among a series of colleges and universities that are doing projects involved with the notion of what if? What if Arcosanti became a global educational resource about sustainability, urban design, and landscape? Or what if it just turned out to be a Soleri museum? Or what if it became the corporate headquarters for something like Google?

There are design departments in a couple of different colleges in the U.S. and in Europe working with us on business plans and infrastructure design for those scenarios, but my own plan is for Arcosanti to continue its growth to become really a global educational resource and a national educational resource, too. I would like to start from the spark of Arcosanti a national discussion among American children and their parents about how cities should be designed — about how landscape architecture should actually work in urban areas, what it means to live in a city, and what it means to have wildness in the landscape outside of cities, too.

There’s a lot of talk about getting higher mileage for cars. Hybrid cars get maybe up to 50 miles per gallon– whoopee– but even so, the entire transportation sector of the U.S. only takes up a quarter of all the energy use in this country. Another quarter’s in manufacturing, mostly because we’ve sent much of our manufacturing to other countries, China included.

Half of all the energy use in America is used in buildings– in constructing them in the first place, but mostly in running them — heating, cooling, lighting them. So if you look up from your computer right now and look around you wherever you’re sitting in this country, you’re seeing obsolete buildings– buildings that we can no longer afford to support in terms of their energy use, and we certainly can’t afford to build many more of them. Yet, almost no one in the country, and certainly none of our politicians, is talking about any of this as an issue. It seems to us here at Arcosanti that it’s the main issue: how we design buildings, how they’re integrated into their landscapes, how cities are designed, not just for energy efficiency, of course, but for real sustainability at all levels of income. We use about one-sixth of the electricity at Arcosanti that most institutions of our size use. As a result, that’s five-sixths of electricity that we don’t have to pay for because we just don’t use it. We don’t have cars within our community.

ASLA is having a conference in Phoenix. Phoenix has around 4.5 million people, with almost 3 million cars in the 900 square miles that is the city. Imagine that each car costs $20,000, which is actually a conservative figure, but let’s imagine that. This means that people in Phoenix are paying $60 billion just to be able to drive to work, school, grocery store, doctor’s appointments, and that’s not just once in a lifetime. It’s every five to 10 years because these cars are renewed. It’s a huge transfer of wealth from almost every individual to a few car companies. That’s not even counting the amount of money that’s spent on roads, parking lots, gasoline, and all of that. Sixty percent of urban land in Phoenix is car-related.

If we’re able to change how we think about cities and cars as we hope to by sparking debate that begins here at Arcosanti, then there might be serious income available to build some truly wonderful things, and to live the kinds of wonderful lives that we’re just not able to live now because the patterns of our cities are so archaic.   

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Jeff Stein / Jared Green, (2) Arcosanti / Cosanti Foundation, (3-4) Arcosanti Historic Landscape / Jared Green, (5) Arcosanti apse / Cosanti Foundation, (6) Arcosanti step seating / Jared Green, (7) Arcosanti “greenhouse apron” / Cosanti Foundation

Adriaan Geuze’s Inspirations

At a rich, dense lecture at the National Building Museum, Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, a Dutch landscape architect who runs the international firm West 8, said in Taoism, “life is tough.” To achieve wisdom, one has to “cross many rivers.” For his Garden of 10,000 Bridges in Xian, China, Geuze and his team actually created the sense of crossing thousands of bridges by setting a series of red fiberglass bridges within a maze-like pattern in an enclosing bamboo forest. The path through is “long,” but once “you get out, you’ve gotten a boost of self-esteem.”

Some of Geuze’s other projects create or enhance an existing sense of the holy. In Padua, Italy, at the Carthusian Monastery, which is famous for its pine tree that creates an “unprecedented amount of pine cones” — so much so that it’s been deemed a miracle by the church — Geuze created walls made of pine cones and pathways through the ever-growing cone floor. The “smell in summer” is amazing, as is the crackling of the walls as the cones dry out.

His project in the swamp of Charleston, South Carolina is for those who worship nature in all its messy glory. “Once they take you in, you feel like you can hardly escape. It’s warm, humid. There are bugs everywhere.” The water “is black like a mirror,” and crawling with gators. There, Geuze created a “simple, intimate space” with hanging spanish moss fences, creating an “intense atmosphere that is stronger than the swamp.” He said being there in his “enclosed swamp somehow changes the whole universe,” with the erotic Cypress roots peeking out of the water. He remembers sitting on a bench watching an alligator sunbathe on the same deck.

Geuze said these places, which create very personal journeys, are his touchstones, his inspirations. But, increasingly, he’s better known for his large-scale public projects, which he explained in a rapid-fire tour and blur of images.

The most impressive may be the relatively new Soundscape Park on Lincoln Road in Miami. A companion to Frank Gehry’s New World Symphony building, the park, which used to be a parking lot, uses the jaggedy-edge patterns West 8 applies to a number of their projects. In this case, the criss-crossing paths play off the “neurotic” Veitchia palms, which are the only ones they were allowed to use (they can withstand just about any storm). The trees, Geuze said, also help create the sense that you are at the beach, “an illusion of ocean.” The park is designed to “capture the euphoria of Miami Beach,” which Geuze said is found in its multicultural food, culture, and nightlife.

Heavy-duty steel pergolas, which were inspired by clouds, were included to provide shade. The vines that will cover the pergolas haven’t grown in yet so the metal structures make a strong statement now. In contrast to the pergolas, there are soft-edged benches that look and feel like ivory, curved and smooth. Because lying is not allowed, large pebble-like forms were added every few feet along the benches.

The design team also had the idea of transforming one of the large white walls of the building into a viewing screen. This way people can also sit outside on a picnic blanket and watch the concerts outdoors. An arena-shaped bowl in the park lined with state-of-the art acoustic speakers creates a “soundscape” visitors can either immerse themselves in or step out of. Many nights there are art installations, student work, and other works projected.

Another project that Geuze and his firm put together in record time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, cleaned up the mess left by an architect, who didn’t deliver any plans for a huge ocean boardwalk some three months into the project. Geuze came in and had to design the boardwalk in two weeks and then deliver just two months later. A popular tourist destination, the boardwalk had to be up by the start of the tourist season.

Instead of creating another Copacabana, Geuze persuaded the mayor of the town to go local, using an Indian artist to create a mosaic design indigenous to the region. Shamans blessed the patterns, which were then simplified and translated into forms that could be built into the boardwalk by local artisans. Everything was made locally, using local vendors.

Geuze used a circuitous route to persuade the city to turn the strip, which used to be a main thoroughfare for bringing cars into the city, into a pedestrian-only space. Sure enough, right after launch, signs went up saying “no cars allowed.” That wasn’t in the master plan, but put in sneakily.

For Governor’s Island, NYC, one of West 8’s largest and highest-profile projects, an old island fortress is being turned into a fantastic park — with “democratizing elements” like hammocks and free bicycles. West 8, with partners Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Rogers Marvel Architects, felt that the scale of the place was too big to handle on foot so bikes were needed. Already, in the parts that are accessible, the bikes have been a hit. Watching the tour, one couldn’t help but want to get out there on a bike as soon as possible.

Geuze said the island, which has a clear view of the Statue of Liberty in many spots, has a “different atmosphere every time you visit.” This is largely due to the fact that access to the water is so close, immediate. On certain sides of the island, sea spray comes over the rails.

The design team created a set of vignettes, with man-made caverns and open spaces, creating a series of visual effects. The caverns and hills are there because the low, brackish water on the island kills the grass so root zones for both trees and plants had to be raised up in parts to create any sense of an Olmstedian, English landscape. Geuze said they’ve designed it so you “will be craving to walk through this.”

Image credits: (1-2) Dezeen, (3) Swamp landscape / Andersom agency, (4) Miami Beach Soundscape / © Robin Hill for West 8, (5) Miami Beach Soundscape / ©R Griffijn RAP Photography, (6) Miami Beach Soundscape / © Robin Hill for West 8, (7) Puerto Vallarta Boardwalk / West 8, (8) Puerto Vallarta Mosaic Boardwalk / Discover Puerto Vallarta, (9) Governors Island / West 8 / Rogers Marvel Architects / Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Mathews Nielsen / Urban Design +, (10) Governors Island/ West 8 / Rogers Marvel Architects / Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Mathews Nielsen / Urban Design +

Petrochemical Industry Has Left Deep Marks in the Landscape

Delivering the 2012 Howland Memorial Lecture at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, Kate Orff, ASLA, founding principal of SCAPE, discussed her recent work mapping the landscape dynamics of southern Louisiana in what she has deemed “Petrochemical America.” The design research project, published as a book in collaboration with photographer Richard Misrach, follows the petrochemical industry and the deep marks it has left on the landscape of the lower Mississippi region across seven chapters: oil, infrastructure, waste, displacement, ecology, food, and landscape.

Orff, a New-York based landscape architect and assistant professor at Columbia University, began the lecture pointing to a time line of fossil fuel use, emissions, and population, pausing to highlight our current moment, where crises in energy, climate, settlement and biodiversity are converging. Orff sees landscape as the space where patterns of fossil fuels use, production, and settlement intersect to produce these crises, and, in turn, the space where these interactions can begin to change. In Petrochemical America, she applies her view of landscape architecture as a way of understanding and intervening at micro-scales to produce macro-scale effects, to map the rich and complicated history of the southern Louisiana landscape.

Petrochemical America maps the cycles of petrochemical production and consumption, energy extraction and waste, in order to show how those cycles can break. Through mapping, we can begin to understand southern Louisiana and how it reached its current state of degraded wetlands, socioeconomic disparity, and petrochemical dependence. Orff points to geological, ecological and social processes and connections that go beyond the scales of our comprehension, and come to rest in the landscape of Cancer Alley, the infamous 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. With that comprehension, the application of a glossary of terms and solutions starts to piece together the ingredients for positive change, from grassroots organizations to public institutions to design options.

The method consists of intricate and layered maps and sections, which she calls “timescapes,” as well as diagrammatic presentations of different drawings on the same theme that pulls out flows and connections, across scales and systems. Misrach’s photographs, taken in 1998, are interwoven and interpreted within Orff’s drawings, serving as the “site” to analyze, sequence, and build into a narrative in her project. The photos are “grenades” or “Braille,” which she reads with a landscape architect’s eyes, appreciative of the beauty of a photograph of a pipeline running through a degraded bayou, but also outlining what’s in that pipe, how it got there, and where it’s going. For Orff, a landscape architect’s perspective is critical to these questions inherent in the photographs. This perspective allowed her to draw connections between the moment in time represented in Misrach’s image and the dynamics, natural and man-made, that produced those conditions.

One such series explores the complex and diverse ecological cycles and interactions of a healthy bayou, and arrives at the truncated, linear pathways, and declining biodiversity that characterize many of Louisiana’s bayous today. The effects of the loss of “looped and living” ecological systems in the bayou are traced outwards, from the contribution of these organisms, such as brown shrimp, oysters, and blue crabs to the economy and history of the region. In mapping “America’s wetland” at this pivotal moment, Orff is also looking at what may soon be lost from the region, with the erosion of the coastal wetlands, changing salt, and freshwater levels, and the fragility of these systems in a place where Deepwater Horizon is only one of many industrial accidents seen on a yearly basis.

In addition to representing the landscape within Cancer Alley, Orff tracks the ways that the conditions along the lower Mississippi cycle through the rest of America and the world, often returning to their place of origin, the Louisiana Delta. Whether it is in the form of fertilizers produced in factories along Cancer Alley only to return as agricultural run-off from the upper-Mississippi River watershed, or the industrial waste stored in the delta’s salt dome formations, the waste of Cancer Alley and of much of the country, they live in the Louisiana landscape. Beyond the waste we can see, she also explores the ways petrochemical products and by-products live in us, from the vitamins and household products we use all over the country to the exposure communities experience from living side-by-side with refineries. In both cases, there are consequences we still do not fully understand how to measure, control, or treat.

Orff concludes the book and her lecture with a map of the United States, expanding her analysis to understand how our national map is also being redrawn. She argues that we are all part of the problem, and that is inspiring, rather than defeating, since we are then all part of the solution. Hopefully, then, Petrochemical America can serve as a call to action to “consciously, creatively and collaboratively redraw the map” of the landscape we have made. In the “Glossary of Terms and Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical America,” scenarios for action and spotlights on organizations show how people are already taking charge of the map of Louisiana, providing a toolkit for leveraging Orff and Misrach’s analysis into action in the landscape.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Rachel Stevens, Student ASLA, Master of Landscape Architecture and Master of Urban and Environmental Planning candidate, University of Virginia.

Image credits: Petrochemical America / Aperture Books

Interview with Jinny Blom on the Therapeutic Effect of Gardens

Jinny Blom is one of the leading garden designers in the United Kingdom. Her work has been featured in
The Guardian, The Telegraph, Gardens Illustrated, House & Gardens, Vogue, and other publications. Blom is on the board of the U.S. Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

You’re just about a household name in the UK for your gardens, which go from the seemingly wildly romantic to somewhat intellectual and contemporary. You’ve said design is “more a matter of intelligence and appropriateness than reflecting a style.” So there is no Jinny Blom style? And if not, is there a set of principles or ethics that guide your work?

I don’t think I have a style. I am me and I like certain things. They’re probably all things that repeat like certain plants but I wouldn’t say that was a style. I think it is much more about having a philosophy. It sounds terrible when you say it, but it’s about local appropriateness. In England, certainly in British Isles, we’ve got very strong architectural precedent in each county. The land changes so distinctively as you move around from flint to limestone to clay. I like to use the materials that come up out of the ground. Things feel comfortable if they look as though they’ve been generated from their point of origin. In London or in other cities, you can do something more contemporary and abstract, but it would still follow those principles. I always think: good materials, good thinking. I’m a real sucker for good thinking.

In an interview with Garden Design Journal, you said, “it’s vital to my own happiness that birds, insects, mammals, fish, and humans can coexist in the environment I’m creating.” How do you design spaces to ensure this will happen?

That’s just linking what one does with the surrounding environment. If you feel like you’re blocking animals, don’t do it. I live right in central London and we’ve got a huge fox population. Animals have very specific routes that they like to take. They were taking a route that I didn’t really want them to take across my garden. So, I just redesigned the garden to accommodate the fox route and then it seems to work. Instead of like, oh the foxes, they’re driving me crazy running through my flower beds, you go, there goes the fox on his little fox route.

You can use that principle if you study the landscape reasonably well. I plant a lot of hedges so that animals can conduit their way easily from one way place to another. Nobody would know that I was doing it. It’s a subliminal thing. I always put water in if I can. I just think it’s rude not to allow space for other creatures to be. If they can be, then everybody’s happy. A lot of my clients will say things like, look the birds are back. They notice. If you take away where the birds can live, then they won’t come.

For one of your large-scale projects, Corrour in the Scottish Highlands, you created an “anti-garden,” an “experimental approach to non-interventionist gardening.” What does that entail? How did that work at that site?

The Highlands of Scotland are really interesting. That particular estate is 1,300-foot above sea level. It’s completely overpopulated with deer because people mainly go up there to hunt. The deer management has taken a turn for the worst so there are more deer than there is land to support them. It’s a very fragile land so they just graze everything off.  When I first went up there, people said nothing will grow here. And I thought, well, of course, it will grow. The first thing we have to do is really release grazing pressure to see what would happen.

The whole project was interesting. I was working with the architect on the project, a guy called Moshe Safdie, who’s very well known over here or all over the world perhaps. He built such a strong Moshe building in this landscape. In a way, that made me want to rebel against doing anymore landscaping — hard landscaping. So, it was a combination of studying the land and this over-grazing issue and how to address a response to this really anachronistic building in that environment. The best way to do it was to maroon the building in pure landscape, pure highland landscape. So, that’s really how it came about. And then my client and I just thought it was hilarious because we’re both women and instead of growing a set of balls to compete with Moshe’s house, we just decided to subvert it.

You’ve done lots of memorable public projects, which appear at garden shows and even as temporary installations. One I was really struck by was the Laurent-Perrier Garden, which is actually really deep, too. How does the garden represent the journey of life?

I made that for Chelsea Flower Show for Lauren Perrier in 2007. Apparently everybody’s sick of gardens having a journey theme now. I didn’t realize I’d tapped into some zeitgeist there. I’m a transpersonal psychotherapist so I’m interested in people’s evolution and growth. The thing is we’re all on a one way trip. At that point my niece had just become very ill and nearly died, and then she didn’t die, and then she got pregnant and had a baby. It was all just very, very quick. I just thought this is amazing. There are these highs and lows in life, literally.

I love the architecture of Carlo Scarpa. I just thought I’m going to swipe one of his nice details. He did a very nice gallery in Venice and just made these panels that allow the canal waters to rise and fall. So I made the journey quite solid. It was travertine marble on concrete bases. All the planting is more emotional, intuitive, perceptive, with a moving aspect. Our journey is really sort of structured by huge events that sort of change your direction, so the panels all flip direction. One of them was a dead end, so it was like a maze. It was also a metaphor for my marriage (laughs). We went down the dead end bit. You have to retrace your steps and go down the other bit.

One of your small scale projects I really like is the Notting Hill Garden. How did you make this small space work?

City gardens are really a discipline. It’s like designing jewelry. I always think they’re like jewelry. My client had just put in some beautiful glazed doors that ran the full width of the house. The garden is probably 30 by 30 foot. They’re Australian and entertain a lot and wanted to cook outside. And I said, “yeah but you don’t want to be sitting in your beautiful house looking out at a kitchen.” I just found a way making a very simple language of blocks that I built up. I found a barbecue that is amazingly discreet. It’s very high tech and very beautiful but it’s very discreet. It can disappear. It has no profile because normally they have huge great hoods, wheels and tongs, and god knows what. So, I just turned it around so it didn’t face the house. If you’re sitting inside and you’re looking out, you don’t want to be looking at it. So, really, the whole garden is a series of monolithic blocks, one of which, hey presto, has a fridge and plate rack.

You’re now on the board of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network. In one of your past lives, you were actually a psychologist. How are the practices of landscape architecture and psychology converging? What can landscape architects and designers learn from the latest psychological research? Conversely, what can the psychological community learn from landscape architects and designers?

Well, this is a subject very close to my heart, but I wouldn’t say I’m the go to person for the technical information. I think the Therapeutic Landscape Network web site itself has incredibly good research. Naomi Sachs, ASLA, who set it up, has just put together such a good board and such a good collection of contributors that I just point people to look at the site for those specific answers. But there’s no question in my mind that good landscaping has a good effect on human beings. A lot of urban architecture, landscape architecture needs to soften up. We’re still building too much.

The half French side of me says look at the Jardin des Tulieries in the middle of Paris. Paris is a very, very built up city, but the fact that they use soft finishes changes everything about the feel of the place. You know, it’s graveled throughout instead of paving. You look anywhere in the Mediterranean, in Europe: they’re much softer in their approaches to urban space. That just has an effect on how one feels. You feel like you’re on holiday. You feel more relaxed. I just feel that we could soften it all up again. Make urban landscapes gentler and more human. Less stuff, less product.

You’ve also said gardens and gardening should be described as being therapeutic as opposed to healing. What’s the difference? How are these gardens therapeutic for war veterans and those suffering from post traumatic stress disorders?

Therapeutic doesn’t imply that you can fix it. It implies that you can make some environmental improvements and give somebody an engagement that’s going to bring them some benefit. Whereas the word healing kind of implies that you’re going to put on your long white robe and touch somebody with a wand and make everything better. I just think there’s a big difference in assumption about what you can do with somebody who’s very damaged. I worked for a long time with very damaged people and know that environmental engagement has a huge benefit.

I’m trying to work at the moment with a colleague of mine on setting up a maintenance company using guys coming back from Afghanistan. Well, for purely mercenary reasons because it’s so hard to find good workers! They’re trained. They’re competent. They know how to follow orders. They know how to turn up on time. They know how to tidy up after themselves. They want to work. And they’re not all suffering post traumatic stress, but they are nevertheless traumatized by their experience. It’s very difficult to leave the army, which is an incredibly structured environment, and go into an unstructured civilian environment. The great thing about gardening is that you’ll become sucked into the diurnal motion of the earth. If you’re having to dig and dig and dig, you have to be connected to earth and seasons. If you’re growing food for yourself, you want your potatoes to do well, so you create a relationship with your potatoes. You might not be able to have a relationship with your wife or your kids, but you can create a relationship with your spuds because you want to eat them at the end of the week and you don’t want to see them shriveling up in the sun. It’s a different emotional bonding.

There’s a really, really good book by Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, an American professor of landscape architecture, about war trauma and gardens. He did a whole thesis on it. It’s very interesting reading because people garden. They garden at the front in first World War. They garden in Chechnya now. There are people gardening in the ruins of that town just shot to bits. It’s a very primal urge somehow. The earth does neutralize a lot of human anxiety.

And I used to do it myself in my past. It’s worked for me. I was very troubled when I was younger and I’m not now. I’m a gardener so I do know about it firsthand as well. I know through working with the schizophrenics I used to work with, when I was director of the charity, that gardening was a massive help. Massive. I don’t say help in an over-weaning sort of way. It just made a difference. I don’t overstate it. I just think, go, and do it. It’s a simple thing that you can do on your own to alter the balance of your life.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits:  (1) Jinny Blom / N. Jouan, (2) Temple-Guiting / copyright Andrew Lawson, (3-4) Corrour / copyright Allan Pollock-Morris, (5) Laurent-Perrier Garden / copyright Gary Rogers, (6-7) Notting Hill Garden / copyright Robert Straver

Why Public Art Is Important

Open Air / Space Between the Page

Susan Weiler, FASLA, OLIN, successfully made the case that “public art is important,” at a session on art and landscape architecture at the 2012 ASLA Annual Meeting. In a review that ran from the early history of American public art, which began in Philadelphia, to evocative examples across the country, and then back to an exciting contemporary project in Philadelphia, Penny Balkin Bach, Fairmount Park Art Association; Marc Pally, a public arts consultant; Janet Echelman, one of the more exciting public artists working today; and Weiler walked the audience through where public art has been, where it may be headed, and why it will always be important.

For Bach, public art occupies a unique position within the art world. In comparison with big-name gallery shows, public art is often “under appreciated” much like landscape architecture is. But there’s lots to applaud: “It’s free. There are no tickets. People don’t have to dress up. You can view it alone or in groups. It’s open to everyone.”

Community art can also create attachment to one’s community. According to Bach, studies have looked at the economic development benefits of art, but only just recently have there been wider examinations of the effect of art on a community’s sense of place. The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community initiative surveyed some 43,000 people in 43 cities and found that “social offerings, openness and welcome-ness,” and, importantly, the “aesthetics of a place – its art, parks, and green spaces,” ranked higher than education, safety, and the local economy as a “driver of attachment.” Indeed, the same story may be playing out locally in Philly: a survey of local residents found that viewing public art was the 2nd most popular activity in the city, ranking above hiking and biking.

The Fairmount Parks Art Assocation — which has been renamed the Association for Public Art given its new broader, national purview — was formed in 1872. Back then, along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, sculptor William Rush, perhaps the original American public artist, was the first to be commissioned to do art in public spaces in the U.S. Then, as now, “public art was viewed as the nexus for gathering,” while people promenaded. In this instance, that nexus was a decorative fountain designed for the public. And then, as now, Bach said, public art was controversial. The clinging clothes of the marble nymphs in the sculpture caused a bit of a “scandal.”

Bach had lots of kind words for Rush, who is now known as the “father of public art, the first artist as planner, and the negotiator of public spaces.” He understood that public spaces are the result of “collaborative effort between many design and artistic disciplines, anticipating the future direction of public art.”

The Art Association was formed prior to the big Philadelphia Centennial and undertook many artistic initiatives to make the event a hit. Bartholdi’s arm for the Statue of Liberty was featured, serving as one of the main draws. The group has always worked with some of the best artists of the era, making sure it’s contemporary in its commissions. Bach said “we take a leap of faith with artists and commission the art of our time.” In 1908, the group commissioned Remington’s largest bronze sculpture. Today, that site has a site-specific poem written for the Schuykill River. Another project called Pennypack by artist Ed Levine along the Pennsylvania Park Trail helps bring that trail to life.

Remington’s The Cowboy / Caitlin Martin © 2010 for the Association for Public Art

Bach also made a point of discussing the “afterlife of public art,” what happens once it’s out there. As an example, she pointed a work by Pepon Osorio, a pavilion at a Latino community center that features historical photos of people from the community. Today, kids from the neighborhood take photos of themselves with photos of their ancestors. Another project called Common Ground in a footprint of a church that burnt down was hosting weddings just a week after it opened. While these works became part of their communities, Bach said the group still has to work hard to ensure that all works remain relevant to their communities and aren’t “orphaned.” “We have to keep the stories about these art works alive.” That involves conservation — making sure the work stays in good shape — and interpreting the art for a contemporary audience through signage, lighting, and public education programs, with volunteer public art ambassadors providing interpretive programs on the street. Works now have telephone numbers next to them people can call to hear “first person narratives” from people with some connection to the work. “We have both high tech and low tech ways to make connections.”

A new piece that just launched promises to upend what cities can do with art at night. Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Open Air just had its world premier (see image at top). Believing – like Marcel Duchamp – that art requires an audience to make it complete, Lozano-Zimmer has a set of 24 high-powered search lights coursing through the night. The lights are activated by the voice and GPS location of the crowd, who leave message via a Web site. Messages are converted into light arrays every night from 8-11.

Groups in cities beyond Philadelphia are also commissioning fascinating works. For Marc Pally, a public arts consultant, these new public art works can have “unanticipated” impacts on viewers. Public art can be “provocative, joyous, or annoying.” The art can be a “rupture in pedestrian life.” In fact, it’s designed to do this: as you view the art, “your progress through the space is slowed down.”

In Sony Studios in Culver City, a new four-year project on the 40-acre campus has transformed the day-to-day experience. A 94-foot rainbow by artist Tony Tasset now welcomes visitors. Where the art hits the ground plane, there’s an interesting “conversation between art and landscape.” Meanwhile, the actual rainbow is viewable from miles around. Pally said people were actually “giddy” during the rainbow’s opening ceremony, believing it “can’t be real,” which actually fits right in with how people experience real rainbows.

Rainbow / Mark Pally

Another project Pally highlighted, a work in a small pocket park in Pittsburgh, offers a new bronze tree, with thousands of hand-painted flowers and leaves. For a short window of time, the piece actually synchs up with the natural trees in bloom. The rest of the year it’s a “layer of disruption, intellectually dissonant.” Pally said for those working with public artists, the “sheer terror of not knowing how these pieces will work out” actually make the works exciting.

In Santa Monica, a major arts festival called Glow, an all-night event on the beach, is a prime example of terror-inducing art. That’s because the organizers were expecting a few thousand people and 250,000 showed up. The Santa Monica event, which was modeled after the global version, aimed to “remake the coordinates of time and space.” The beach was “invaded with art.” In contrast to gallery works, much of the work took advantage of the open space, “creating interactions the exact opposite of individual experiences in museums.”

So what role do landscape architects play in helping public art work its wonders? According to Weiler, landscape architects help frame these creative experiences or even implement them. In the case of Sol LeWitt’s Lines in Four Directions on Flowers, a landscape work the artist created many years ago for the space in Fairmount Park in front of Philadelphia Museum of Art, it was OLIN who made the work actually happen. OLIN translated the conceptual work into plants, creating “an appropriate palette” for the site-specific work. For OLIN, Weiler said, the job is to “honor gems of another nature, not distract or add to the experience.” In fact, for their recent work updating the gorgeous Rodin museum in Philadelphia, they undertook a “subtraction of the landscape.”

Lines in Four Directions in Flowers / Association of Public Art

For a new project with Janet Echelman, whose giant jellyfish-like sculptures woven of high-performance fishing wire dot many cities, landscape architects can play a leadership role in creating space for art. She said Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg (PFS), who was in charge of the landscape architecture for the Vancouver convention center, which is capped with a 6-acre green roof, was central to creating the space for her work, and even integrated her ideas and concepts into the landscape. With PFS, Echelman redrew the plan for the water garden so that her art forms became “aerating, remediating.”

Working with EDAW (now AECOM) and Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, in Phoenix, she found the landscape architects were once again in her court. Her Name is Patience, which is set in a plaza next to the main light-rail transit center and the downtown Arizona State University campus, was initially cancelled due to the economy. The public “protested in favor of this art” to such an extent that it ended up being financed. It’s now the highlight in the downtown walking experience, a destination in a downtown that doesn’t have many. At night, the work really seems to come alive.

Her Name is Patience / Jared Green
Her Name is Patience / Jared Green

And now, returning to Philadelphia, Echelman has begun work with Weiler at OLIN on Pulse, a new $50 million project that will add a welcome contemporary element to Dilworth Plaza, at Philadelphia’s historic City Hall, with its glowing yellow clock. Echelman and OLIN are adding to the “beloved work of historic architecture” by creating a “physical Rothko painting in the landscape.” Layers of colored lighting, glowing in water mist that will amazingly leave no water trace on people who walk through it, will illuminate the path of the green, orange, and blue subway lines running under the city, tracing the path of the trains in real time. An exciting hybrid space will appear, with public art, transportation, and landscape combined.

Pulse in Philadelphia / OLIN and Janet Echelman
Pulse in Philadelphia / OLIN and Janet Echelman

Read more on the value of public art and see Echelman’s TED talk.

Metropolitan Agriculture at All Scales

S, M, L, or XL-sized metropolitan agriculture? Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Mia Lehrer + Associates, said it’s not just about one size, which definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to cities, in a session at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting. In an era where it seems like any school or community can start a garden, perhaps it’s time to step back and think about the bigger picture. What’s the goal? Lehrer thinks it’s comprehensive urban agricultural systems that are relevant to the unique cultural, social, and environmental conditions of a city.  Metro-region agriculture, if planned, designed, and supported financially at all scales, can address issues related to social equity and health issues like diabetes and obesity, while building regional agricultural communities and economies.

In California, where Lehrer lives, she said the agriculture system is completely out of whack. While the state grows some 50 percent of America’s fruit and vegetables, just 2 percent is kept and eaten locally. About 98 percent is imported from Chile or elsewhere. Unfortunately, California isn’t alone: “These issues also go way beyond the North American continent.”

In an effort to build and sustain urban metropolitan systems at the XL and L-scales, Sibella Kraus, Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), made the case  for “New Ruralism,” a place and systems-based approach to farming and smart growth that seeks to “preserve and enhance the rural and urban edge.” She said these places at the edge are counter-intuitively “indispensable to the vitality of cities.” This is because the footprint of any city really reaches far beyond the core — to the edges, to the suburban and rural communities and economies that make the whole metropolis work.

In the San Francisco Bay area, Kraus explained that she’s been working on metropolitan agriculture planning, including a San Francisco foodshed assessment. She said that project came out of the question, “could San Francisco survive on food grown within a 100-mile range?” Not likely for now, but perhaps more so in the future. In justifying the program, Kraus said like any other planning effort, urban agriculture also needs its own “nuanced, detailed planning” effort.

At the sub-regional scale, another project on the Coyote Valley agricultural region, a 7,000 acre valley near San Jose, focuses on creating a vision plan, with layers outlining how farmland, nature habitat, and development can better coincide. Over the next 25 years, $50 million will be spent to make the plan a reality, purchasing easements and land to make sure development happens in a way that protects the vital cultural landscape of the agricultural region.

Kraus said one of the ultimate goals of SAGE’s work was to “promote rural and urban placemaking” while linking sustainability at those two different scales. In the European Union, the places where the rural and urban meet, “urban edge agricultural parks,” are completely valued — people understand the need to protect and even cherish these historical agricultural landscapes. She pointed to a 1,000-acre agricultural park outside Milan, Italy, where there are recreational, farming, and cultural opportunities combined.

At the M and S-scales, Glen Dake, ASLA, GDML, former green deputy for the city of Los Angeles and a landscape architect, described his innovative “community development-based approach” to metropolitan agriculture in Los Angeles. Dake said he’s averaging about 3-6 gardens per year, and has worked on more than 50 in total. As an example, he pointed to his work with Crenshaw Gardens, where he’s been helping them access local community development block grants.

Dake called for a “public health approach” that leverages local city programs. In Los Angeles, that has meant working with and tapping resources available through a range of federal, state, and non-profit programs like L.A. Sprout, L.A. County Renew, and Little Green Fingers programs.

In a rapid-fire survey of research, Dake argued that at least indirect evidence demonstrates that urban agriculture does help boost positive health outcomes. With 2/3 of adults in the U.S. expected to be obese by 2050 if nothing is done, just getting people outdoors exercising, eating healthy produce matters. What particularly works: doubling gardening with nutrition education. When kids and adults alike learn that you can eat “lots of processed foods and not feel full,” they also learn that fresh, unprocessed food helps reduce weight if coupled with exercise.

The little green fingers program is also important because there “obstacles to having kids in gardens.” Parents worry that they will get dirty; they also worry about supervision. In a new design Dake worked on, the gardens had areas that made supervision easier. Interestingly, Dake said in his work setting up these projects, he has actually found that a lack of bathrooms wasn’t an impediment to making these gardens work.

Another speaker delved into Detroit, where there’s a real grassroots effort underway to turn the city around. A big part of that effort, which runs from XL through S scales, said Charles Cross, Detroit Collaborative Design Center, is producing food. He said all the locally-grown produce at Detroit’s Eastern Market is “amazing.”

At it’s height, Detroit, which comes in at a gargantuan 13,859-square miles, had a population of 2 million. Now, it’s about 715,000. The population started to drop in the 1950s, with the collapse of manufacturing. Now, there are around 105,000 vacant lots. About 125 schools have closed. One neighborhood that used to have nearly 90,000 people now just has 5,000.

Working with landscape architecture firm Stoss and Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), Cross’ group developed a plan that connects all the scales, from the “personal to the neighborhood to the non-profit to the commercial scales.” Talking to the mayor, Cross made the case for making the plan a reality, saying all the city’s local farmers needed better “distribution, infrastructure, and facilities.” One proposal they’ve pitched even calls for large-scale urban forestry within the city limits. Christmas trees or wood products from Detroit could be coming to a city near you.

Cross said companies are also getting involved in this bottom-up agriculture-driven revitalization effort. In fact, Compuware, which is headquartered in Detroit, just won an ASLA professional design award for their remarkable urban garden called Lafayette Greens. A lush garden and public space, Lafayette Greens provides access to all local residents who can come help harvest the produce, which is then donated to food banks. Other local bottom-up programs include Detroit School gardens and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Recovery Park, an amazing program, provides former felons and addicts with self-help and rehabilitation services, while creating “productive landscapes” within the city. This ambitious project is working on unearthing a creek, developing a horticultural center, and converting 2,000 inner-city acres into farmland.

In a nice finale, Kraus said that all these examples show that “agriculture is the new golf.” Lehrer went one step further, calling for cities to convert their existing water-hogging golf courses into farmland. L.A. golfers beware: She may be aiming for your courses soon.

Image credit: (1) ASLA 2012 Professional Award Winner. Lafayette Greens. Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture / Beth Hagenbuch BLA, (2) San Francisco Bay Are Foodshed /San Francisco Chronicle. Stephen Joseph, (3) Crenshaw Garden, (4-5) Recovery Park

Interview with Brian Johnston on the Landscape of Autism

Brian S. Johnston, ASLA, is the founder of Square Root Design Studio.

Recent Center for Disease Control estimates say 11 per 1,000 children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which include autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive development disorder (PDD). The numbers have increased since the 1980s, but many scientists believe this is due to changes in how the disease is diagnosed and improved public education about the disorders. You and your colleagues argue that with the increased prevalence of ASD, landscape architects must increasingly factor in the needs of people with these disorders into their designs. How do people with ASD interact with the built environment? How is this different from people without these disorders?

The main difference between people on the Autism spectrum, regardless of how severe, and neuro-typical people, is their perception of the world around them and their sense of self in space and time. Yet the responses can be as wide a spectrum as the disorder itself and vary widely even within siblings on the spectrum. A familiar phrase is “if you’ve met one child with Autism, you’ve met one child with Autism” because of how wide and varied and dynamic the spectrum really is (and also how wide and varied the treatment modalities for the disorder are, as defined by my co-presenter, Julie Sando, founder of Autistically Inclined and Natural Play Therapy.) Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) perceive their surroundings much differently — in that their sensory sensitivities are much more extreme, either hyper or hypo. There may be the presence of sensory distraction issues, where an individual will “distract” one sense that is very strong, to enhance another that is very weak. They also have a proprioceptive condition that limits that sense of self, and affects how they perceive and process their world. A co-presenter, Tara Vincenta, ASLA, the principal of Artemis Landscape Architects in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and her colleague, Naomi Sachs, ASLA, founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, discusses this at greater length in their “implications” article.

In your presentation at the ASLA annual meeting, you argue that there are great benefits in working with individual families and their properties, and using these residential spaces to improve connections among those with ASD and their families. Spaces can be designed to be safe and comfortable for those with ASD while also providing spaces for the entire family and even creating zones for parents to recharge. How can residential landscape architecture work on these different levels?

Our main goal on the private, single-family residential scale is to identify the individual’s sensory needs and provide customized opportunities that allow them to occupy the same spaces as the rest of the nuclear family. This will promote enhanced interactivity and offer a sense of inclusion to the child and the entire family. When I started brainstorming with Julie about this we had totally different ideas at first. But as time went by and the discussions evolved, we realized that it was more important for the entire family to be able to share and interact in the same space, rather than creating totally segregated spaces for each family member or for each level of “ability.” That’s about the time when Autistically Inclined and Square Root Design Studio joined forces on this topic.

Maximizing security and safety through physical and clearly visual boundaries, providing familiarity, stability and clarity, and minimizing sensory overload by providing areas of respite are some main guidelines to follow. Also by consistently using specific but standardized post-occupancy evaluations (POE’s), landscape architects and designers can hopefully begin to draw conclusions on what’s effective and what’s not, despite the vast differences from one individual to the next. One possible outcome is that we realize we can’t draw any conclusions, and that there isn’t any consistency.

How must public space design change to accommodate people with ASD? What common public space designs cause problems?

This really refers back to the overall theme of this year’s annual meeting, which was “Beyond Boundaries: Design, Leadership, and Community”. Another co-presenter, Vince Lattanzio, ASLA, president of Carducci and Associates in San Francisco, touched on design of public and semi-public spaces for individuals with ASD. He explained that public spaces should at a minimum provide flexibility and opportunities for adaptation of use, visual clues and clear lines of sight, clear definition of space, predictability and non-threatening elements, clearly defined boundaries and signage. We must think beyond the five traditional senses (touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste) and acknowledge and accommodate for proprioceptive and vestibular sensory stimulation through cocooning, nurturing, and recharging spaces.

Public spaces can be chaotic, especially for an individual with ASD, and are often a cacophony of sensory stimulation, resulting in them to be over-stimulated. From a safety and security aspect, unfenced, uncontained, undefined boundaries create problems for the individuals and their parents or care-givers. This results in a lack of understanding of order within the space, and there is often a void of clear signage to direct users comfortably and predictably through the spaces.

On the positive side: Which design features provide relief for hyper-sensitive people? Does nature have a more pronounced therapeutic benefit? Or is it more about tactile or other design elements?

Features that promote swinging, rocking, pushing, pulling, digging, climbing, and jumping are very important to incorporate, as these activities are more physically engaging and stimulate the vestibular senses. Some important characteristics to consider: spaces that are nurturing and safe, that create a “cocooning” effect; places that will allow one to re-center one’s self; proprioceptive elements that provide deep pressure, such as sand or thick rubber; outdoor spaces that offer choices of the level of stimulation desired; and sequential spaces that increase the levels of stimulation as one passes through them. Warm color palettes are also important, as they are less visually abrasive and more inviting to individuals with sight sensitivity.

What are the specific issues for kids with ASD with common playgrounds? What needs to be included in playgrounds?

Currently, many playgrounds lack clear transitions and aren’t sequentially designed, so a child with ASD can become uncomfortable through encountering a severe sensory stimulant without choosing to do so or preparing oneself by gradual exposure to lesser levels of the same stimulant. By providing defined choices in a sequential manner, the child has control over the level of sensory stimulation he or she receives. Control and choice are important for an individual with ASD. Also, safety can be very subjective and loosely defined in many playgrounds that are considered ASD-unfriendly.

Again, it goes back to the flexibility and adaptability point made earlier. A playground, whether being retrofitted or constructed from scratch, should allow flexibility to accommodate a wide range of conditions, not just be ADA compatible or ASD friendly. It should be all of the above. We want the spaces to be universally acceptable so that there is more opportunity for interaction and a greater acceptance of the special needs population by everyone. For an existing space in need of upgrading or retrofitting to be considered ASD friendly, it’s important to create sequences where they don’t currently exist and to provide observation points, both for the children to observe others in play before deciding whether or not to join them and also for parents, therapists, and caregivers to supervise without being too obtrusive and distracting. Elements that stimulate fine and gross motor skills are also positive additions if they aren’t already incorporated in an existing space.

What’s the role of nature play in therapy for kids with ASD? Are there models being developed and tested?

We feel nature does play an important role. Exposure to nature helps ground the kids and orients them to their surroundings, it helps them overcome, or at least experiment with their textual sensitivities. Nature provides exploration opportunities, as well as enhanced opportunities for socialization and direction-following that just cannot be replicated as effectively inside or in a completely synthetic environment. Being in the natural sunlight, digging in the dirt — there’s just nothing quite like it. Nothing that can replace or replicate those feelings. These kids spend plenty of time inside in their various therapy sessions. We want to provide a natural alternative to their synthetic surroundings. Less screen time and more green time! In our group wind-down after our presentation on Friday, Vince mentioned a recent study of children with ADD, and the affect of exposure to nature on their focus immediately afterward was dramatically improved. That isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is that this isn’t more widely accepted or practiced.

One such model that has been developed over the past 10 years or so is by our very own, previously mentioned Tara Vincenta. She has created a concept called the “Sequential Outdoor Learning” (SOL) Environment. She incorporates all of the above-mentioned elements and characteristics in a series of nine or so spaces that gently guide the children through an adventure of their choosing, at their own pace, and at their own level of stimulation exposure. It’s quite a fascinating model, and we’ll all get to experience one in the flesh in the next few years, as she’s been contracted to build one in Pennsylvania. There have been a few other models developed, on a conceptual level at least, but I’m not aware of any that are this complete.

You also say data is vital to taking the lessons learned from these residential-scale projects and scaling them up to a community level. Overall, how is data being collected on how those with ASD interact with environments? Are landscape architects using pre-occupancy and post-occupancy surveys? Are psychologists and neuroscientists involved in this research in the field?

Yes, ideally both pre- and post-occupancy evaluations should already be a standard practice. But that shouldn’t just be limited to ASD friendly spaces. I think they should be used on every design job. There are far too many awards being given to spaces that fail from a usage aspect. We could all learn a little from POE’s. But in the case of Autism, since it is such a rapidly emerging science, it’s critical. With the rise in frequency, there is a greater demand for successfully inviting, comforting, safe, stimulating, and interactive spaces. If the spaces aren’t carefully assembled, parents just won’t take their kids there, it’s as simple as that.

It is so important to consult with the ones who know the kids best. They are the parents and families of individuals on the spectrum, the operators and directors who oversee daily operations of the facilities, and the therapists who work with the children on a weekly or daily basis. They are the experts, the ones who will offer the most accurate assessments, both before and after construction, more so than a doctor or scientist who may only see the child once or twice a year. We’re talking about PLAY here, so we need to engage the portion of the population that PLAYS with the kids the most.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: Brian Johnston, (2) Square Root Design Studio, (3) Julie Sando Photography, (4) Carducci and Associates, (5) Carducci and Associates, (6) Artemis Landscape Architects, (7) Julie Sando Photography


With SITES, Regenerative Design Moves Forward

In a session on measuring regenerative design at the ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting, Danielle Pieranunzi, Affil. ASLA, LEED AP, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Joel Perkovich, ASLA, Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens; Jose Almiñana, RLA, FASLA, Andropogon Associates; and Michael Takacs, ASLA, Civil & Environmental Consultants, Inc., discussed recent developments in the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot program.

Pieranunzi began the session by describing the development of sustainable landscape metrics for the SITES rating system. Aiming to improve ecosystem services while bolstering natural systems that we typically view as free, the SITES program is envisioned as a stand-alone rating system, operating on a 250-point scale with 4 levels of certification. This certification system could be applied to projects ranging form small-scale residential sites to parks and streetscapes.

The 2-year pilot program, which ended last June, tested the program metrics on locations spread across the U.S. Of course, developing a landscape sustainability metric is not easy, and the SITES program must define measures for hydrology, soils, vegetation, and materials. The pilot program allowed for critical testing of these measures, which can now be adjusted and refined.

Perkovich discussed one pilot project: the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) in Pittsburgh. The CSL grounds are located on the 15-acre Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden campus. Opened in 1893, the initial plant collection for the conservatory came from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Phipps Conservatory touts itself as the world’s “greenest” public gardens and it was the first to become LEED certified.

The new CSL headquarters is on a 2.65-acre site, the former location of a City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works salt storage facility. The new design includes a 24,350 square foot building and is designed to be net-zero energy and water. In fact, the building is expected to be 80 percent more energy efficient than a conventional building.

Almiñana explained CSL’s design. The integrated design process included nine months of design charrettes with the local community and local designers. This process established a need for the site to be both an extension of the Phipps campus and to fit into the larger landscape. Almiñana discussed how the design offers natural air circulation by connecting the building design into the site, zero-waste energy through the deployment of interventions to generate energy and moderate temperature, and net-zero water by exploring the potential of every site surface.

Takacs talked about the hydrological design of the CSL site. To achieve a 100 percent, net-zero water level, 100 percent of water on the site must be captured or reused. Therefore, the design used pervious paving, bioretention areas, an open water lagoon, underground storage, a green roof, and rain gardens to dramatically reduce runoff. This system even captures runoff from the upper campus Botanical Gardens, which requires a tremendous amount of water to function.

For sanitary water treatment, the CSL design uses an array of tools including a septic tank, constructed wetlands, sand filters, and a solar distillation system. By employing these treatment elements, the CSL site generally doesn’t release anything back into the public sewage system.

As more landscapes like the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes are designed, built, and monitored, the more refined and sophisticated the SITES rating system will become. Each SITES project provides vital knowledge and creates incentives for the construction of future regenerative sites. The session ended with this thought: “What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?”

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer associate.

Image credits: (1, 3, 4, 6) Landscape Voice, (2, 5) Andropogon Associates