Grown in Detroit

On a modest site downtown, Lafayette Greens yields a good deal more than just food.

By Linda McIntyre

Detroit is having quite a moment in the media at a time of renewed interest in the trials and tribulations of cities, but it’s still kind of surprising to find a small, trapezoid-shaped edible garden thriving among the towers of its downtown. This is Lafayette Greens, designed by Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture, on a block that, until now, was best known for its homegrown fast food rivals American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island (“Coney Island” is Detroitspeak for chili dog). Now the Coneys are improbably sharing the neighborhood with vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers, all grown on a scant half-acre at a busy intersection across from the historic Book Cadillac Hotel (now part of the Westin chain) and the city’s federal office building and courthouse.

A little more than a decade ago, the notion of a neat, well-designed garden here at the paved epicenter of car culture—the General Motors headquarters is a few blocks away—would have seemed like a hallucination. The site’s previous occupant, the Lafayette Building, was a 14-story V-shaped Italian Renaissance tower built in 1923. It was demolished in late 2009, having been vacant since 1997. It had become one of the beautiful ruins for which Detroit has become ghoulishly famous, with broken windows, graffiti tags, squatting hipster artists, and weedy trees growing out of the roof.

But although abandoned buildings and vacant lots are still vexing issues in many parts of the city, this section of the downtown core has been transformed. The waterfront along the Detroit River is slowly developing into a series of linked green spaces and public plazas. Sports venues, even the home of the hard-luck Lions pro football team, draw hordes of loyal fans downtown. New cafés and pop-up retail spaces lure shoppers from suburban malls. Companies such as Compuware and Quicken Loans have opened big offices here and brought in employees from outside the city.

Compuware was one of the first companies to come back downtown, and one of its founders, Peter Karmanos Jr., has been a steady force in efforts to revitalize downtown Detroit. Karmanos, who stepped down as CEO in 2011 (he’s currently the company’s executive chairman), was one of the leaders of a group of businesspeople and philanthropists who raised $20 million to design, build, and maintain Campus Martius Park across the street from the company’s headquarters and just up Michigan Avenue from Lafayette Greens (see “Miracle on Woodward Avenue,” LAM, November 2006).

Lafayette Greens is a Compuware project too. Meg Heeres, the company’s art and community programs manager and the project director for the garden, says that Karmanos (who’s a Master Gardener) originally wanted to start an urban farm somewhere in the business district.

That’s not as weird as it might sound: Detroit is huge—almost 140 square miles—and by some estimates there are as many as 40 square miles of vacant land. There’s a long history of farming here, starting with French settlers’ early-18th-century “ribbon farms” along the Detroit River. Grassroots gardeners have started community gardens all over the low-density city, which has an abundance of single-family houses with yards. Detroit’s historic Eastern Market wholesale and retail food complex has a lot of local fruit and vegetable vendors. And in December, the city planning commission approved a new urban agriculture ordinance that updates the zoning code to allow land uses such as farms, tree farms, and orchards.

Compuware wanted the project done fast, but it also needed a design firm with the right kind of sensibility. “We knew this was not a straight-ahead landscape architecture project,” Heeres told me. “The designers had to understand the community here, how to engage a lot of different stakeholders and create a welcoming space for all, while meeting our demands for a strong aesthetic and innovation. My involvement as the client would be very, very hands on, and they had to be okay with that.”

Ken Weikal, ASLA, who started his firm in the Detroit suburbs in 1989, and Beth Hagenbuch, Associate ASLA, a partner in the firm and the project’s lead designer, were already involved in GrowTown, a nonprofit group formed to help improve derelict urban sites with easy and inexpensive design interventions and technology. They had recently worked on a community project in the north central part of the city.

The design quickly evolved from the simple kitchen garden concept that Heeres pitched to Weikal and Hagenbuch—raised planting beds divided by mulch paths—into a modern riff on the French potager. Corrugated steel clads the raised beds and plays off the concrete and high-rise buildings that surround the space, as well as the dramatic weathered brick wall of an adjacent building that serves as a backdrop to the greenery. The shiny metal and the reclaimed wood used to build a trio of wacky storage sheds were inexpensive and manufactured locally. They also give the space an industrial vibe that suits Motown quite well.

Compuware loved the design and wanted it built as soon as possible. But the city owns the site, and Mayor Dave Bing’s administration has been looking at creative ways to use vacant land, including larger-scale urban agriculture. A lot of consultation and negotiation by Heeres was required to hammer out the year-to-year lease agreement in a short time. The design was made final by January 2011, the city’s blessing was secured in time to start work in June, and most of the work was done by the end of July.

The prep work for the garden was not as hard as you might expect. Weikal says that after the Lafayette Building was demolished, the site was excavated about 15 feet down, and soil was hauled in to bring it up to grade. The team replaced the top few feet of that soil but didn’t have to deal with a huge contamination legacy.

The designers manipulated the site in subtle ways to give the garden a spatial charge. Two gravel paths radiate out from a paved terrace and gradually diverge from each other, widening for a forced perspective. This arrangement makes Shelby Street, to the west, look farther away than it is from the terrace. They integrated the site’s four-foot grade change into the design. It helps the hardscape drain into a swale edged with gabions and planted with redtwig dogwoods and other water-tolerant plants. It also varies the height of the raised beds for comfortable and accessible gardening. The tops of the planters all rise to the same flat level, but the bases follow the slope, resulting in a range of bed heights, from eight to 40 inches, and an intriguing sense of depth across the whole garden.

A small, circular children’s garden, 38 feet in diameter, sits at the southeast corner. It is edged with fruiting shrubs and sunflowers, and its planters are filled with colorful flowers, sweet-smelling herbs, fuzzy lamb’s ears, and spiky succulents. Made from recycled 55-gallon steel juice barrels, they repeat, in a smaller size, the children’s garden’s circular shape. These geometric shapes, and the strong lines of the rest of the garden, bring order to all of the lushly planted raised beds and help the small space hold its own in the tall and dense urban streetscape.

All of the planting in the 2,000 square feet of raised beds was done on one sweltering and labor-intensive day in July 2011, during which the landscape contractor, the WH Canon Landscape Company, executed what Weikal describes as a “military-style operation.” Plants were grown from seed off-site in the nearby town of Howell by Motave Meadows, a small organic grower, in 12-inch pots that could be slotted in to the raised beds without much root disturbance. “The challenge that day was to plant several thousand tender transplants into more than 30 beds according to a very detailed planting scheme,” says Hagenbuch. “Getting the plants into the right beds, the specified patterns, watered in, and drip irrigation in place and properly adjusted on a very hot day required dedicated teamwork.”

Apple and pear trees, and swaths of lawn, were installed separately. Weikal says the lawns, planted with fescue that doesn’t require a lot of irrigation, help the garden look good all winter and open up more space for programming. Along with gravel paths, they also contribute to the site’s mostly (70 percent) porous surface. As in most cities, stormwater management is a problem in Detroit: According to a 2012 report by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, in 2011 the city sent 7 billion gallons of stormwater and untreated sewage into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. The city government is trying to use more green infrastructure, but its dire financial situation has slowed progress.

Since its official opening in late August 2011, Lafayette Greens has been a big success. In 2012, its first full growing season, the garden produced almost 1,800 pounds of fresh produce according to Gwen Meyer, who manages the garden for Compuware full-time. The food, which is grown organically, is donated to Gleaners, a local food bank, and other community groups (volunteers can take small amounts with them). Kids from Compuware’s in-house day-care center and other nearby programs come to learn and play. Volunteers from Compuware, the federal building, and other nearby offices show up regularly to pull weeds (the raised beds and overall tidiness make it easy for people in work clothes to do a bit of gardening at lunchtime) or hear talks on beekeeping, vermicomposting, and other garden topics.

And some people come just to hang out, which is fine with Meyer. “Our whole purpose is to be available for people to sit and relax, take a break,” she told me. “They can get involved if they want to.” The garden is open year-round, and so are volunteer hours, from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. In the winter, fewer volunteers show up, but the ones who do shovel snow, keep an eye on the covered hoop houses Meyer is trying as an experiment, and plan for the next growing season.

Some concessions to the reality of urban parks had to be made. Heeres says that Compuware would have preferred to leave the site open, but the city insisted on a fence. The garden is locked up at night and on most weekends, and a camera allows Compuware security staff to monitor the site, which is well lit at night.

Vegetable theft hasn’t been a big problem, Meyer says, but it happens. “We’d rather engage people than reprimand them,” she told me. “I might ask them to pick more so I can take it to Gleaners. Honestly, I’d rather train thieves to harvest properly so the plants continue to grow. It doesn’t occupy much of my time.”

Lafayette Greens doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Urban farming has become something of a class-based flash point here. The concept was mocked by some residents in the recent documentary Detropia, and the city council’s December approval of the sale of about 1,500 city-owned lots to a local businessman, John Hantz, who wants to start a tree farm, was controversial.

Compuware has been careful not to fan any flames. Heeres and Meyer stress that Lafayette Greens is by no means the first or only edible effort in the city. “The media attention is positive, but it doesn’t always fully represent how deeply spread out growing is here,” Meyer says. At the dedication in 2011, Heeres focused on the park aspect of the project. “It’s like Campus Martius with vegetables,” she told the Detroit Free Press.

Heeres says that the ecofriendly aspect of Lafayette Greens is nice, but it wasn’t what drove the project—it was about building relationships in the community. The project offers some timely lessons. Green spaces are part of Detroit Future City, a long-awaited strategic plan released by the Bing administration in January. The product of a two-year process led by local government, business, academic, and nonprofit leaders, the plan is a broad blueprint for improving the city’s economy and making better, more efficient use of its vast amount of land over the next 50 years. Among other things, it envisions more walkable, high-density neighborhoods with inviting parks and gardens. Kind of like what Compuware has done on a smaller scale.

Other companies, whose willingness to deeply engage has the potential to make or break the strategic plan, might be paying attention to the company’s success. Heeres says she’s had “probably a half-dozen calls” about the process. “None of those have come to fruition yet, but we would love for that to happen.”

The city, and the people who live and work there, will benefit if it does. “Lafayette Greens has created a real amenity in downtown Detroit,” John Gallagher, a business and development reporter for the Free Press, told me. “The design of the park is very much advanced over the usual community garden in a neighborhood setting. The organization of the garden, with Compuware volunteers tending the plants, maintains the quality level.” Few places need that kind of amenity as urgently as this one.

Linda McIntyre, a Detroit-area native, is a former staff writer and frequent contributor to LAM.

In honor of National Landscape Architecture Month (NLAM), the entire April issue of LAM is available for free.

Image credits: (1-2) Lafayette Greens / Beth Hagenbuch, Associate ASLA

Yang Yongliang’s Ghost Landscapes

Yang Yongliang, a young artist from China, combines traditional Chinese Shan Shui (literally, mountain water) art with digital techniques to create “ghost landscapes,” which offer a dreamy techno vision of man and his environment. While the videos and pictures have a striking sense of harmony, they are also somehow unsettling. Industrial images, pollution, and waste have replaced the traditional country idyll. According to Romain Degoul, writing on the Galerie Paris-Beijing web site, Yang uses the tradition of Shan Shui, with its detailed views of mountainous landscapes and scholars, to create a “new world of illusions, a vision between dreams and nightmares, futuristic and age-old at one time.”

All of Yang’s conflicting emotions about urbanization are in the work. “The city,” Yang told David Rosenberg in another article, “is the place where I live, a space that evolves with me and which contains my memories. A mirage or ghost-city is the environment towards which I reach out, but it only exists in my imagination. The water of the mountain (the landscape) suggests the imitation of the traditional art forms of my childhood, which have gradually disappeared as the city and I have evolved. The birth of the Ghost Landscape is not an accident. The city, the landscape – I love them and hate them at the same time. If I love the city for its familiarity, I hate it even more for the staggering speed at which it grows and engulfs the environment. If I like traditional Chinese art for its depth and inclusiveness, I hate its retrogressive attitude. The ancients expressed their sentiments and appreciation of nature through landscape painting. As for me, I use my own landscape to criticize reality as I perceive it.”

Degoul thinks Yang’s photographs change the closer you get: “When looking at them closely, they become shockingly modern city views. He perfectly handles the contradictions between ephemeral and solid, sparse and bold, beauty and ugly so as to make the entire picture poetically harmonious, but the details are ‘blots on the landscape.'”

But Yang may also simply be updating an ancient art for today’s polluted, urbanized China. “Formatted to long panoramic scrolls, printed on cotton paper and red-stamped like in the ancient times, enhanced with details and sense of scale, the whole composition being black and white as it would be with Chinese ink, Yang’s pictures do indeed represent the contemporary Shan Shui.” While traditional Shan Shui paintings offer “ancient trees, waterfalls, pavilions or some Holy mountains,” Yang’s contemporary versions are of “electric pylons, skyscrapers, and traffic-jams.”

Yang studied traditional Chinese art such as Shui Mo painting and calligraphy with the great master Yang Yang in Shanghai. He now teaches at the Shanghai Institute of Vision Art.

See more of Yang’s work here and here.

Also, check out another Chinese artist, Yao Lu, who creates remarkable Shan Shui photographs of landfills. These are also a powerful commentary on the ecological destruction that too often comes with rapid urbanization.

Image credits: copyright Yang Yongliang / Galerie Paris-Beijing

Bench Innovations in Boston

“Public seating sets the scene for chance encounters, people watching, connecting with nature, or just taking a break.” Indeed, public spaces without seating can seem pretty uninviting. To create an iconic bench or “street seat” for the Fort Point Channel area in South Boston, Design Boston invited all types of designers from around the world to submit concepts to their Street Seats Design Challenge. Nearly 170 concepts came in from 23 countries. Just 20 made it to the semi-final round. According to the organizers, the goal of the competition is to create a “sense of livability” in a pretty rugged urban area, while also being “socially and environmentally conscious.”

Judges chose the semi-finalists that best the design criteria: “innovation, durability, sustainability, aesthetics, and comfort.” Also, benches needed to be designed so they aren’t bolted to the ground.

The ones who made it to this round were clearly inspired by the rich marine and nautical history of the Fort Point Channel. Boston is trying to turn the whole area into its “Innovation District,” so many designs also pushed the boundaries of the typical park bench. Most concepts seemed to use sustainable or reused materials. Here are a few particularly unique ideas among the 20 semi-finalists:

The “Wa” Chair by Katsuya Arai. (see video above)

Arai writes that “wa” means harmony in Japanese. “I applied this concept to form the bench.” Made of marine plywood, which was selected because it’s pliable, sturdy and water and fungal resistant, the serene Wa bench provides opportunities for individuals or families to sit together. There’s even a path through it for animals.

Knot Bench by Joseph Chun Jr., Natalie Fizer, Sutton Murray, Emily Stevenson at Pillow Culture.

This interesting design takes its cues from the “rich marine and nautical history of the Fort Point Channel that ocean-going vessels once populated.” Their bench is made up of “tied, snarled, and knotted” P.E.T. plastic rope. There are different seating heights for tall and short people and kids, all built into one bench. Looks fun to sit on, but all it would take is one tourist to spill one ice-cream cone in there to really goop it up though. Hopefully it’s designed to be cleaned easily.

Negative / Positive by Matt Trimble, Haik Tokatlyan, Jared Steinmark, Bob Williamson at Radlab.

The RadLab team says their bench is made up of the city’s “infrastructural refuse”: wood, concrete, and steel. “Deposited layer by layer, the bench is a response to the geomorphological conditions that make and shape the land surrounding Boston.” Thought-provoking seating with lots of layers.

The Wharf Bench by Jesse Shaw at Currey and Company

This elegant bench would use reclaimed pillars from the Fort Point Channel piers. The use of just three pillars is symbolic, playing homage to the “three pillars” that supported the development of Boston. Shaw also says the design is purposefully open because people “feel free to communicate with each other when their chests are at a 45 degree angle to each other.”

Arbortecture by Teddy Slowik at Novatona

In the same vein, Arbortecture also reuses local materials, in this case fallen urban trees, to make a lovely bench. Applying an adhesive enables Slowik to create a simple yet comfortable-looking form.

Park Bar by Ryan Pierson and Sally Zheng at Syracuse University.

Another simple yet really family-friendly form made out of reused materials allows people to sit, eat a snack, and catch views of the water.

Cleat by Sarah Burley, Tyler Dawson , Cale Kaufman, Tai Geng, Blake Morton, Colton Sanford at Western Washington University.

This team lets their refined design speak for itself. Using a cleat as a model, it immediately brings the area’s nautical history to life, makes a bold statement, and looks like an inviting place to sit.

See all 20 semi-finalists’ bench concepts.

All semi-finalists get a $750 grant from the Design Museum Boston and sponsors to fabricate a life-size bench by April 27. Then, the 20 benches will be on display for people to test out. The winners will get $5,000.

Before then, check out all Street Seats entries at Factory 63 (63 Melcher Street, Boston, MA).

Tree Gardens: The Largest Living Architectural Structures

Tree Gardens: Architecture and the Forest
by Gina Crandell, a landscape architect and professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a fascinating exploration of what she calls the “largest living architectural structures” – masses of trees that form expressive spaces. Crandell provides an in-depth study of several iconic landscapes and the role of tree planting within the design of these world-famous spaces. Tree Gardens combines rich historical research with careful design analysis to illustrate an array of living structures, many of which offer defining concepts central to landscape design.

Case studies from the Renaissance era to the modern-day reveal the goals of the original designers and how the projects have since been maintained. The legacy of each project is discussed in detail, as the removal and replacement of trees within these influential and often beloved landscapes is inevitably costly and controversial. These discussions provide an excellent framework for the book’s primary focus: the spatial strength of tree forms and their crucial relationship to the definition, connection, and continuity of spaces.

The case studies cover the historical era (Lucca and Boboli Garden, Italy and Versailles), the era from 1860 to 1960 (Central Park, Gateway Memorial Park, and the Christian Science Plaza), and more recent projects spanning 1995-present (Tate Modern, Reimer Park, Novartis Headquarters, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the 9/11 Memorial Forest). In the case studies, historical background, views on art and gardens, and the significance of the design concepts set the tree structures in a rich context.

The reader gains an understanding of the significance of various landscapes in the evolution of design. For example, we learn how Versailles challenged the traditional boundary of garden and regional landscape with its unprecedented scale and ambition.

We learn how the naturalized forms of Central Park reflected not only impressions of Olmsted’s trips to Europe and England, but the idea that forms free of rigid geometries represented a new found freedom.

We learn how artistic representations of gardens influenced people’s perception of nature, and the Musical Garden by Sorensen, inspired by the Danish agricultural landscape, pushed the boundaries of geometric and spatial ordering.

We also learn how Dan Kiley’s revolutionary emphasis on proportion and the critical nature of tree spacing would make him the father of the modern bosque.


The book then provides a cross-section of the cultural, social, and political factors that influenced not only the garden designs but the prevailing public perceptions of the time. Particularly enriching is the dialogue on the “garden as art and forest as architecture” and the evolving perception of man’s relationship to nature.


This captivating analysis provides a great reference. Throughout, Crandell analyzes all sorts of tree structures: allees, bosques, palisades, groves, quincunx, plantations, thickets, and their ability to transform space over time. The guiding principles and design theories behind these iconic landscapes offer a wealth of information for designers to consider in future projects.

Read the book.

This guest post is by James Royce, ASLA, LEED AP, Principal, Studio2112 Landscape Architecture.

Image credits: (1) Princeton Architectural Press, (2) Historic Photo of Central Park, (3) Musical Garden, (4) Versailles, France, (5) Rendering by Dan Kiley, (6) Orchard, Nursery, Garden. (2-6) Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

A Return to the Earth

Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjforth’s series of photographs of elderly people from around the world — called Eyes as Big as Plates — is like nothing we’ve ever seen. The two artists find senior citizens with “marked connection to their natural and cultural roots,” creating totally individualized costumes for them to wear out in nature. The artists say they are “exploring their subject’s mental landscapes, while playing with personifications of nature.” The results have a mythic quality, yet you can also tell the subjects are having fun.

The two interview senior citizens and then find the “organic, scavenged” materials that fit their “interests and activities.” The results from their latest series of photographs in New York City, with residents of the Hamilton-Madison House, City Hall Senior Center in Manhattan, can be seen in a new exhibition in Brooklyn.

Bob, who they met at an Indoor Gardening Society meeting where “he was slipped a little note up his sleeve” letting him know they’d love to hear from him, is utterly transformed.

Another subject, anonymously named X, becomes a figure like Prospero out of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The photographs play with folklore. “Each figure will present a solitary figure in the landscape, dressed in elements from surroundings that indicate neither time nor place.” The idea is to recall the way in which folklore “animates the natural world through a personification of nature.”

An earlier series, which is particularly powerful, was shot in Sandnes, Norway, in collaboration with “local senior heroes, sailors, retired agronomes and 90-year old parachuters.”

For these artists, incorporating their subjects into these natural landscapes can also create a melancholy beauty. “The slippage of elderly figures into the landscape suggests a return to earth, a celebration of lives lived, reinforcing the link between the human and natural worlds.”

See more photos and be sure to go to their latest exhibition in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which runs until April 24. An evening reception is on Friday, March 22.

Image credits: copyright Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjforth

Some Big Wins for Nature at CITES

One international organization seems able to wade through the politics and get things done. It’s called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). At its meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, last week, delegates from 170 countries created new protections for hundreds of species of trees. There was also a big win for sharks and manta rays, which are increasingly threatened by Chinese demand for shark’s fin soup and traditional medicine. There were new efforts to combat international illegal trade in elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns. Increased illegal trade has decimated these regal creatures. In a press release, CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon said: “It takes enormous effort to negotiate treaties and then make them work. This is a big day for nature.”


According to CITES, international trade in a range of rainforest hardwoods like rosewoods and ebonies from Asia, Central America, and Madagascar will now be regulated. “Rapidly rising demand for these precious tropical hardwoods has led to serious concerns that unregulated logging is depleting populations of already rare species.” Indeed, rainforest hardwoods like rosewoods are increasingly rare. Removing these trees, which are deeply embedded in forest ecosystems, means carving out huge paths, which open these areas up to further devastation, and destroying habitat for native animal species. Regulating trade in the trees may then have positive impacts on the species that depend on them.


Recent studies show that somewhere between 25 and 75 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, which are used in shark’s fin soup and other traditional Chinese medicines. Last year saw an even greater jump, with 100 million harvested. Being finned is a particularly ghastly way to go for these animals, as they are often still alive when they are dumped back into the sea. Without their fins, sharks simply float to the bottom and suffocate or are eaten by other sharks.

Under the new agreement, international trade in the oceanic whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus), scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrma lewini), great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran), smooth hammerhead shark (Sphyrna zigaena) and the porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus), which are now harvested in record numbers, will now be regulated. BBC News reports that China and Japan tried to block action on these shark species at the last minute, but their efforts were thwarted by other countries. “From now onwards, these [sharks] will have to be traded with CITES permits and evidence will have to be provided that they are harvested sustainably and legally. These listings mark a milestone in the involvement of CITES in marine species.”


The bigger challenge may be changing cultural norms in China. One delegate from a shark fin-exporting country told The Guardian that the “cultural attachment to serving shark fin soup at weddings in China – now affordable for millions more in the country’s swelling middle class – was very strong and very hard to break.” The delegate said: “It would be like telling the French not to have champagne at their wedding.” (See photos of sharks facing extinction).

Manta Rays

Manta rays, which were described as “slow-growing, large-bodied migratory animals with small, highly fragmented populations,” and having amongst the “lowest reproductive rates of any marine animals,” will get some protections from over-exploitation. Manta gill plates are apparently in demand in some countries. The Guardian writes, “their populations are being devastated off Sri Lanka and Indonesia to feed a newly created Chinese medicine market in which their gill plates, used to filter food from the ocean, are sold as a purifying tonic.” Some 5,000 are killed each year, generating $5 million for traders. Interestingly, leaving them alive brings in around $140 million from tourists. That sounds like a no-brainer.



CITES writes that “strategic decisions” were adopted to collectively address the “elephant poaching crisis and escalating illegal trade in ivory.” For the first time, African countries also set aside their differences and united in support of action. “The general ‘rules of the game’ for trading in elephants or elephant products were thoroughly revised, modernized, and strengthened, addressing e-commerce, systematically using forensics, monitoring ivory stockpiles, controlling live elephant trade, dealing with countries that are persistently involved in illegal trade in ivory, etc.” CITES countries agreed to a “suite of targeted actions focusing on the 30 countries mostly involved in or affected by the illegal killing of elephants and the illegal trade in ivory.”

CITES certainly made some progress on protecting elephants, but perhaps not enough, failing to enact a ban on the sale of existing elephant tusk and rhino horn stockpiles. Time is running out for these grand animals, who form close knit family units. According to a powerful op-ed by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists in The New York Times, a “staggering 62 percent of forest elephants” in Central Africa disappeared from 2002 to 2011. Just last year, more than 20,000 elephants were killed. Elephants attacked by poachers are known to become traumatized, as they witness family members killed. “Rogue” elephants, often young males, have then gone on rampages, basically fighting back at people. These traumatized animals also play a reduced ecological role, staying close to their home range. Wide-ranging, happy elephants distribute seeds through their fecal matter and act as landscape architects, culling certain trees and creating clearings.

The scientists write: “This killing is affecting behavior as these highly intelligent animals respond to the threats they face. They avoid roads not protected from poachers by wildlife guards. Once wide-ranging, the various population groups have become geographically isolated, hemmed in by a shroud of fear. They no longer garden on a grand scale, and they have been cut off from vital food, mineral and water resources they require to remain healthy. There is less time to feed and none for play or leisurely interactions between close and far-flung family. Nor do young elephants develop secure social relationships when living in a state of terror, or mourning slain family members — and elephants do mourn. When mothers are killed, babies still dependent on their milk die slowly from starvation, heartbroken and alone. We increasingly see groups of young elephants without knowledgeable females accompanying them. Lost with these matriarchs are traditions and collective memories passed down through many thousands of generations that guide their offspring to that isolated salt lick or patch of fruiting trees that helped to sustain them.”


The Guardian says nearly 20 nations now “face bans on all wildlife trade unless they crack down on the poaching, smuggling or sale of illegal ivory. The summit is also considering compulsory forensic testing of seized tusks, so the criminal chain can be traced and compulsory reporting of stockpiles of ivory, to prevent corruption or thefts.” International trafficking in ivory is done by “crime cartels every bit as ruthless as those trafficking narcotics, arms, and people,” argues the WCS scientists. Using forensic evidence from seized ivory may be key to combating poachers. Read more about the poaching crisis in a new report by CITES.


Member states asked international bodies to “prosecute members of organized crime groups implicated in rhinoceros-related crimes.” CITES said what’s needed is more national legislation to create local deterrents. “Countries should also submit rhino horn samples from seized specimens to designated accredited forensic laboratories. Countries were asked to consider stricter domestic measures to regulate the re-export of rhino horns products from any source, and develop and implement demand reduction strategies aimed at reducing the illegal movement and consumption of rhino horn products.”

According to Wild Aid, rhinos have existed on earth for more than 50 million years. Like elephants, they are “mega-grazers” and provide an important ecological function. They clear vegetation, maintain grasslands, reduce fire hazards, fertilize soil, and disperse and germinate seeds.

Rhino horns are used in traditional Chinese medicine and are believed to cure fevers, headaches, and skin disorders. Given that rhino horns are made of keratin (the same material that make up hair and fingernails), there’s no scientific merit to these claims.

Only five species of rhinos are left. Two-thirds of the world’s population is in southern Africa. More than 600 were poached in 2012.

Polar Bears

The United States and old Cold War-era foe Russia teamed up to propose blocking the trade in polar bear parts. Interestingly, Canada, which is home to two-thirds of the world’s remaining 20,000 wild polar bears, didn’t support the effort and the proposal failed to be adopted. The Guardian writes: “Canada […] argued there is not enough scientific evidence to show they are in danger of population collapse. Canada says it already has strict rules to ensure hunting is sustainable, and the Canadian delegation leader has dismissed the US proposal as ‘based more on emotion than science.'”

About 600 polar bears are killed each year in Canada, some in “traditional hunts” by Inuit and others by “trophy hunters.”

Given the precarious state of health for polar bears, who are increasingly under stress due to climate change, the lack of action can only be seen as a failure to protect an iconic yet dwindling species.

In another interesting piece of conservation news, Yale Environment 360 reports that the damage done to tropical forests by loggers may have been overstated. “Researchers have discovered a significant flaw in large swaths of ecological research into the impact of logging on tropical forests: Scientists have been dramatically overestimating the damage done by loggers, skewing conservation strategies.”

Image credit: Sharks on display in Indonesia / The Guardian, (2) Scalloped Hammerhead Shark / Tumblr, (3) Manta Ray and tourist / Manta Ray of Hope, (4) Elephant family / Great Plains Conservation

In Philadelphia, More Landscape Innovations

Last year in Philadelphia, Amtrak started tearing things up as part of new work on the west plaza of their 30th street station, replacing the underground parking garage roof. The only problem was it was right next to a new public space called the Porch, which had been created by the University City District, a non-profit in Philadelphia. So the team with the district decided to create an innovative green wall to block the views of the construction, providing a new model for how to camouflage the unsightly. According to Nate Hommel, ASLA, capital projects manager with the district, an average of 1,000 people walk past the popular Porch each hour. See a brief video about it below:

Hommel tells us that his team worked with local industrial designer Mario Gentile, Shift_Design, to create a “modular system” that can be used by the Porch and other public spaces once the Amtrak project is completed. “Shift_Design came up with a modular planter wall that sits in front of the construction fence and is stabilized with ballast comprised of construction debris from the Amtrak West Plaza project.”

But hiding a construction site isn’t as easy as it looks. The Porch is “essentially a bridge” so they couldn’t exceed the weight of 300 pounds per square foot. The area is also a really windy thoroughfare, so it needed to withstand gusts of 40 miles per hour or more.

Once the stainless steel form was in place, Hommel worked with Shift_Design landscape architect, Kate Farquhar, to come up with a “plant palette that would develop into a lush vertical planting wall as quickly as possible.” Hommel tells us that “several species of sedum (Angelina, blue spruce, hispanicum, acre) Eastern Wood Fern and Liriope were used to give us some late winter color. Plants like helleboris, Clematis lonecera Magnifica and Carex morriwii will be giving us some spring and summer textural varieties. Additionally we will add plants as part of our late spring planting change-outs at The Porch.”

All twelve modules were installed in just a couple of days.

Philadelphia is also pushing it in terms of incorporating green stormwater management infrastructure into urban revitalization efforts. The city’s ambitious $2 billion, 25-year program aims to bring green roofs, streets, rain gardens, and enhanced tree pit systems to urban neighborhoods. As part of this effort, Infill Philadelphia: Soak It Up!, a national, interdisciplinary design competition organized by the Philadelphia Water Department, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) and Community Design Collaborative just announced that teams led by Roofmeadow, OLIN, and Urban Engineers, Inc. won the $10,000 prizes. A total of 28 teams representing more than 100 firms participated.Explore the presentations by the winners.

Image credits: University City District

Dennis Bracale’s Garden Compositions

“It took me two years to find the stones for this project,” says Dennis Bracale, a landscape designer based on Mount Desert Island, Maine, while giving a lecture at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Image after image showcased Bracale’s work on private gardens. The talk showed the audience the artistic heights landscape architecture can achieve when time and monetary constraints aren’t an issue.

The crux of Bracale’s philosophy is an image of a stone Buddha with a carved flowing robe framed by two stones, one of which accents the robes with its own layered flow pattern. That philosophy is the skillful combining of rough nature (found objects made through geologic and biologic processes) with refined nature (objects modified through craft) to create meditative spaces.

With a client base primarily on Mount Desert Island, Bracale knows his fellow islanders move to and stay on the island for the natural beauty of the location. Helping a client form a relationship with the landscape is his mission. His work results in meditative spaces that amplify yet seamlessly blend into the surrounding landscape. Scale is critical, Bracale says, and the design must be an echo of the surrounding site. If there are large stones in the background, he says to place large stones in the foreground. Making the land sing requires design at the scale of the land, not the scale of the person. Designing in this way brings the grandeur of the surrounding landscape right to the front door, immersing the client in the idealized extension of the native milieu.

Bracale’s design ethos is fed by his study of philosophy, ecology, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the garden traditions of Japan and China. His travels abroad have influenced his style, as have his experiences with calligraphy and craft. Calligraphy is incorporated both as a concept of energy flow and also as an inspiration for paths through the gardens. Craft, most notably Japanese joinery, is highlighted in all of his construction. “A project is only as good as its details,” he says, as he shows the assembly of an Alaskan yellow cedar arbor without nails.

While his most frequently used wood is from Alaska, his stone and plant choices are predominantly local to Maine. Most notably, the stone he chooses is granite from the “scrap pile” at the base of old quarries, whose workers used to roll any imperfect stones out to the edge. Imperfect and weathered stone is what Bracale is after, giving his projects the appearance of age at completion. Bracale’s planting style is romantic with lush, texture-rich arrangements of primarily native plants that capitalize on the never-freezing-never-hot climate of the Maine coast. His goal is to take the site’s natural features “up a notch.”

Bracale, who takes pictures of his works in progress from all perspectives, talks of sitting on his bed, examining the images night after night, noting the adjustments to make on the next trip to the site. “Sometimes,” he says, “that can mean adjusting a giant rock just two inches.” While others working on the site may think this sounds crazy, they’ve learned to trust the eye of the composer.

This guest post is by Sarah Schramm, Student ASLA, Master of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia.

Image credits: (1-2) Mount Desert Island gardens by Denis Bracale / Real in Darien

For Students: Seoul Urban Design Competition

The Seoul government has launched an international design competition for students, “Toward Urban Integration.” The organizers seek a bold new vision for the  Jemulpo-gil expressway, which would involve building underground tunnels for cars and creating new sustainable spaces on the surface. Then, Seoul seeks to re-integrate the adjacent blocks with the new public spaces, resulting in a “eco-friendly” regeneration of the entire area. This is kind of a “Big Dig” / Rose Kennedy Greenway project for Seoul, a city of more than 10 million and one of the world’s most dynamic metropolises.

According to the organizers, Jemulpo-gil is an expressway that runs in an east-west direction from Youido, an island on Han river, to Shinwol IC (interchange) on the western edge of the city. The 55-meter wide 10-lane dual carriageway stretches some 8.4 kilometers. The competition site is any piece of Jemulpo-gil and the adjacent blocks east or west of the first section of the expressway between Shinwol IC and Mok-dong bridge.

The organizers write that the city is actually contemplating a bold revamp of the competition site: “The expressway has deepened the separation between the north and south sides and further deteriorated the living condition of the area. The Seoul Metropolitan Government has considered the idea of converting the surface of Jemulpo-gil to public space.” The city wants to do this to “reduce the heavy traffic,” enhance city life, and re-weave the frayed urban fabric.

The new public spaces could be parks, recreational spaces, or public buildings. Ideal solutions would “reconcile the public spaces with the local transportation.” The proposal, which could be conceptual or more practically-minded, would need to provide truly sustainable solutions for all components.

Submissions can come from any student or team of students in the world (the team can have a maximum of 3 people). Register by April 26 and submit by July 5.

Another competition worth checking out is the One Prize, an international open competition for building resilient cities. “This year’s competition is set in the context of severe climate dynamism.  How can cities adapt to the future challenges of extreme weather? The ONE Prize is a call to deploy sophisticated design to alleviate storm impact through various urban interventions such as: protective green spaces, barrier shorelines, alternative housing, waterproofing technology, and public space solutions.” The folks behind the prize directly ask landscape architects to submit proposals by August 31. First prize winners will take home $5,000. Check out the winners from last year.

Lastly, our friends at The Architect’s Newspaper have created City Terrain, a new newsletter on the innovations in landscape architecture and urban design. “Each week, City Terrain will compile our top stories in landscape architecture and urban design, coverage ranging from waterfronts and innovative streetscapes to water retention systems and green roofs. Game changing projects, green products, urban agriculture, ground-breaking parks–City Terrain will harvest our award winning coverage and serve it directly to our readers.” Sign up for the newsletter.

Image credits: Seoul Urban Design Competition

Superkilen: Global Mash-up of a Park

The nearly mile-long Superkilen park in Denmark is a bold attempt to create a new identity for an “ethnically diverse and socially challenged” neighborhood in Copenhagen, Denmark. An in-depth community outreach process organized by the city has led to a place like no other, with a sequence of plazas that honor different ethnics groups living in the area. Designed by Bjarke Ingels’ firm, BIG, landscape architecture firm, Topotek 1, and artists’ group, Superflex, the massive project also accomplished a lot with a little budget: at just $34 per square foot, the landscape “packs a lot of bang for the buck.” The project, which has recently been all over the design press, also just took home the AIA Institute Honor Award for urban and regional design and an annual design award from Architect Magazine in the “play” category.

The AIA jury, which included Ellen Dunham Jones, author of Retrofitting Suburbia, Mark Shapiro, Mithun, and Tom Luebke, U.S. Fine Arts Commission, wrote: “This is not only original, but stunning to behold. It is noteworthy for its aesthetic approach, which is straightforwardly artificial rather than pretending to be natural. One of the project’s most exciting dimensions is its inclusion of the diverse community of users. Its bold use of color and public art in spaces that promote social interaction and engagement all exude a high level of excitement and energy through what once looked like residual space. Superkilen shows what can be done with an open, inventive approach within severe cost limitations. It demonstrates the value of powerful visual and spatial moves while keeping connected to the realities of a contemporary multicultural context: the condition of many European cities.”


AIA writes that the design of Superkilen was driven by two over-arching ideas: “First, that the park would become a vehicle for celebrating the neighborhood’s multicultural heritage, and, second, that it would serve as a giant exhibition of urban best practice.” Beyond this, the park would also work for the neighborhood, with new trails for pedestrians and bikers, local transportation connections, outdoor recreation areas and playgrounds, and space for markets.

Three zones provide both hard plazas and green areas: the red square, the black market, and the green park, which serves as a “giant exhibition of urban best practice,” writes AIA. Urban best practices are defined as a “global collection of found objects” that come from the groups represented in the residential areas surrounding the park, some 60 nationalities. Arch Daily says these objects range from “exercise gear from muscle beach L.A. to sewage drains from Israel, to palm trees from China and neon signs from Qatar and Russia.” All the urban objects are identified by small stainless plates.

The objects, they write, are a “sort of surrealist collection of global urban diversity that in fact reflects the true nature of the local neighborhood – rather than perpetuating a petrified image of homogenous Denmark.”

Local diversity is also represented in the landscape architecture that frames all the unique objects. “Superkilen re-attributes motifs from garden history. In the garden, the trans-location of an ideal, the reproduction of another place, such as a far off landscape, is a common theme through time. As the Chinese reference the mountain ranges with the miniature rocks, the Japanese the ocean with their rippled gravel, or how the Greek ruins are showcased as replicas in the English gardens. Superkilen is a contemporary, urban version of a universal garden.”

Apparently BIG and team started with three different colored zones as their starting point, but ended up expanding the green section due to community demand. “The desire for more nature is met through a significant increase of vegetation and plants throughout the whole neighborhood.” Nature is found in “small islands of diverse tree,” sorted by color, type, and bloom period. The origins of the plants also match those of the found objects nearby.

To extend the sports and cultural activities at the Norrebrohall outward, a new Red Square, which looks a bit fascist or playful depending on your mood, was created. “A range of recreational offers and the large central square allows the local residents to meet each other through physical activity and games.” A large section of the square is covered in “multifunctional rubber” to enable ball games, parades, and farmer’s markets.

Also included is an outdoor fitness area that is also a global mix-up, with Thai boxing equipment; a playground that includes a slide from Chernobyl,  Iraqi swings, and Indian climbing playground; a sound system from Jamaica; and benches from Brazil, Iran, and Switzerland. Of course, the trees in the neighborhood all bloom red, too.

Mimers Plads, the black component of Superkilen, offers the main gathering spot. This is “where the locals meet around the Moroccan fountain, the Turkish bench, and under Japanese Cherry trees.” There are tables, benches, and tables for backgammon, chess, BBQing, and hanging out. Humorously, there’s a big dentist’s sign from Qatar, “Brazilian bar chairs under the Chinese palm trees, a Japanese octopus playground next to the long row of Bulgarian picnic tables and Argentinean BBQ’s.”


Lastly, there’s the Green Park, where everyone can speak the language of games. There, BIG and team built a hockey field with an integrated basketball court but surrounded these spaces in green. “The activities of the Green Park with its soft hills and surfaces appeals to children, young people, and families.”

The neighbors has asked for more green so BIG and team ended up making the green park completely green, “not only by keeping and exaggerating the curvy landscape, but also painting all bike- and pedestrian paths green.” Monochromatic landscape in three colors.


See more photos of this global mash-up of a landscape.

Image credits: (1) copyright Iwan Baan, (2) copyright Torben Eskerod, (3) copyright Jens Lindhe, (4-7) Iwan Baan, (8) Torben Eskerod, (9-10) Iwan Baan, (11) copyright Mike Magnussen