Camden: “We Can’t Widen Our Way Out of This Problem”

By that statement, Camden, New Jersey, officials mean that the city can’t widen its underground stormwater management pipes enough to carry more water and sewage. Instead, the city is taking a new approach, using green infrastructure to manage stormwater while also dealing with its many toxic brownfield sites. According to Frank McLaughlin, New Jersey Department of the Environment, who spoke at the E.P.A.’s Brownfields conference in Atlanta, Camden has found a new way to work, “greening brownfields” for stormwater management. Their brownfield redevelopment projects are all about capturing and using water to grow and maintain green infrastructure. This is a smart way to take advantage of clean water, because once it hits the built environment in Camden, it basically becomes toxic.

Camden, a small city of 77,000, has two Superfund sites (the places the E.P.A. deems the most dangerous to humans and wildlife) and more than 100 toxic brownfields, making it one of the most polluted places in the U.S. Camden became an industrial hub in the early 1900s, but it has lost much of its industrial base by the 1970s. With that loss, population fell. On top of that, the combined stormwater and sewer infrastructure is aging.

Nearby Philadelphia has shown a new way to do things, though, with its bold green infrastructure program. McLaughlin said Camden has taken up some of those ideas but also made their local green infrastructure initiative, Camden Smart, a “collaborative community benefits program.” The program seeks to reduce flooding in residential areas, but really involve the community in the solutions.

Working with the community, Camden Smart has given out 90 water conservation kits, created 19 rain gardens, two rainwater harvesting systems, and planted more than 230 trees. There are also new rain garden and rain barrel installation training sessions. An old gas station that the community really wanted to see gone has become the Waterfront South Rain Garden Park (see image above). About 12 underground storage tanks were taken out along with thousands of tons of contaminated soils. “The diesel sheen on the groundwater was also addressed.” The new park that has gone in with the help of Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program is now filled with native plants and also mitigates street-level flooding and stores 800,000 of stormwater annually. McLaughlin said “landscape architecture is all about integrating stormwater management practices these days.”

Already, this bottom-up-style program has led to the capture of 1.5 million gallons of stormwater annually.

Beyond this program, the city government is also taking on some of the most polluted sites, spending quite a bit of money to turn toxic waterfront drains into environmental resources. Another major project is cleaning up and capping a landfill with “clean, permeable fill.” By the contained vegetation-covered landfill, there will be a new constructed wetland, which together are expected to capture some 25 million gallons of stormwater runoff annually. The city and federal governments, foundations, and the polluters, who have been found and fined, will spend upwards of $100 million to clean up some abandoned toxic sites and restore riparian corridors.

The Metropolitan Sewage District of Cincinnati serves another community that can’t widen its way out of the problem of combined sewage overflows (CSOs). While more than 700 communities have to deal with CSOs each year, Cincinnati has one of the worst problems, spewing 1.5 billion gallons of combined stormwater and sewage overflows into its rivers in just this one area. “This is one of the biggest CSOs in the U.S.,” said Mary Lynn Lodor, Metropolitan Sewage District.

To comply with an E.P.A. consent decree that it clean up its act, the sewage district is creating an ambitious $193 million green infrastructure program in the Lick Run watershed. Just a 5-7-minute car ride from downtown, some 2,700 acres, much of which are brownfields, will become the site of a “designed waterway” and park that will “daylight” the buried Lick Run creek.

The sewage district approached the community with a bunch of different ideas, offering up 150 different photos of all different kinds of green features, asking the community what kind of amenity they wanted. People wanted to see the creek again in a park-like setting. The community “influenced the look and feel of the project.”

The district then worked with a team of landscape architects (local firm Human Nature), and engineers (Strand) to develop a master plan that will create green infrastructure that is attractive and user-friendly and also mitigate the stormwater management problem. “We didn’t want to spend millions on a green infrastructure system that didn’t work, like Milwaukee did,” so the team really did their research. Plans for the newly green area are also expected to lead to additional redevelopment and infill, new trails, and a cultural and recreation center.

The district will use a rate payment increase to pay for the project, but Lodor said the green infrastructure is a lot cheaper than the conventional grey approach. The new functional landscape, which will handle more than 600 million gallons of runoff, is more than $200 million cheaper than the alternative: 30-ft wide pipes running more than one mile underground. To maintain the green infrastructure, the sewage district is partnering with the parks department. “They are doing some of the maintenance work on this because it’s really a park-like amenity.”

Image credit: (1) Waterfront South Rain Garden / Camden Smart, (2) Lick Run Watershed Master Plan / Metropolitan Sewage District of Cincinnati

Brownfields Are Just Untapped Assets

President Obama has made revitalizing local communities that have been hit hard by the decline of manufacturing a priority, said Jay Williams, the new White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, at the E.P.A.s’ Brownfields conference in Atlanta. Williams should know: He gained a reputation for leading a smart redevelopment program in Youngstown, Ohio, a manufacturing community that has suffered from “years of disinvestment and economic collapse.” At the Brownfields conference, Williams introduced a set of innovative mayors who are all at “the top of their game,” leading ambitious revitalization efforts through “energizing” brownfield redevelopment projects, all with major help from the private sector. As Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator at the E.P.A., pointed out, revitalization means “better communities, stronger economies, and an improved environment. It’s about getting all three.” And if redeveloped correctly, “brownfields can be transformed from eyesores into true assets that spur job growth and reduce air and water pollution.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said his city has taken advantage of E.P.A. area-wide brownfield planning grants to turn the City Hall East project from an abandoned site into a success. The City Hall East project is expected to transform an “eyesore” of a 2-million-square-foot distribution center just 5 minutes from downtown into a brand-new mixed-use project, with offices for technology firms, condos, and ground-floor retail. With tax credits, the private sector will put some quarter of a billion dollars into the project. City Hall East builds on a “strong legacy” of brownfield redevelopment in the city, especially the Atlantic Station project, a massive mixed-use community built on what was a highly polluted site near midtown (see image above). The site features loads of shops, condos, canals, and parks. Pretty impressive for an old brownfield site. The key to Atlantic Station’s success was an agreement between the local government, developers, and E.P.A. to co-finance aspects of the infrastructure, including a new bridge, which was viewed as necessary to create enough local connections to the development.

But perhaps the most exciting story coming from Atlanta is the coming transformation of a 22-mile ring of abandoned rail lines that circles Atlanta, running through more than 45 neighborhoods. Those abandoned tracks and brownfield sites are becoming the Atltanta Beltline, which will offer bike and walking trails along with a new light rail network, at a cost of some $2.8 billion over 20 years. Already, the Beltline team, which includes landscape architect Kevin Burke, ASLA, has opened a 7-mile chunk of the park network. Mayor Reed said “it’s been used 300 percent more than we thought it would.” Once the project is completed, some 1,200 acres of new green space will be added to the city, and a light rail will connect neighborhoods that have been historically inaccessible to each other. A truly stunning civic project for a southern city not always known for inclusive public works, the Beltline’s first pieces, like the 4th Ward Park below, are a sign of great things to come.

To show that private sector developers are equally as essential to brownfield redevelopment as the government, Scott Condra, president, Jacoby Development, spoke about how federal and local governments must help mitigate the risks facing the private sector in cleaning up some of these big sites. For example, he said that Atlanta’s Mayor Reed convinced Porsche to move its new headquarters in a former brownfield site near Aerotropolis Atlanta, the broader area around the Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Jacoby Development, which bought the land for $40 million, is now the developer behind the building, which will be designed by HOK. They are making the site work for Porsche “because the government set the stage. The infrastructure investment was critical.” He added that with Atlantic Station and other huge redevelopment projects he has been involved in, the city “narrowed the uncertainty.” For both Condra and Mayor Reed, “public private partnerships are critical.”

Other smart urban leaders also showed how to tap the private sector to make revitalization visions work. Mayor Terry Bellamy, Asheville, North Carolina, was able to convince Kraft Brewery to open a plant and offices in her town by showing them “our existing, coordinated plan” and where they could fit in. There were well-thought-out plans for riverfront revitalization and greenway development projects. She said Kraft wanted to see this first to determine how they could help with the revitalization efforts. “It was very important to them that a plan was already in place they could contribute to.” With neighboring communities, a broader regional development plan was even created to “preserve the local character” of Asheville. Interesting the town knew that to preserve the local character, they had to go think broader and go regional.

Mayor Mark Mallory from Cincinnati, Ohio, is also taking a regional approach to revitalization. He said his city is the base of three states and 15 counties, “some in Kentucky and some in Indiana.” He said this was basically the only way to think because “people don’t limit themselves to political subdivisions. They go where things are.”

In Cincinnati, the focus has been on cleaning up the Ohio River and redeveloping the brownfields along it. With a new stadium coming in, the city created the new Banks project, a 45-acre park along the riverfront, with mixed-used housing, retail, and museums coming in behind. The park and much of the redevelopment is also on top of a huge parking lot. Mayor Mallory said one of the benefits of this is that “if the river floods, it’s only the cars that are hit.” With all the new development, demand is now in place for a new $130 million street car network. “The goal will be to connect the riverfront with other neighborhoods. You need movement for success.”

All these leaders made the case for smart local planning that can only come out of a deep collaboration among the private, non-profit, and public sectors. Stanislaus said the E.P.A., Department of Transportation, and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), through their partnership for sustainable communities, are increasingly financing projects “where smart planning is already happening.” He believes “the level of collaboration really determines the level of success.”

Image credit: (1) Atlantic Station, Atlanta / Cooperation Conservation America, (2) Historic 4th Ward Park / Atlanta Beltline, (3) New Porsche Headquarters, Atlanta / HOK via Dexigner, (5) Cincinnati Banks project / Urban Cincy.

Shaping the City with Horticulture: Parks and Plazas

The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society just organized a conference on Civic Horticulture in Philadelphia. Three panels of leading landscape architects discussed the organizational, aesthetic, and productive potential of horticulture. They explained how it is shaping contemporary civic spaces. They presented on three major topics: The Street, Productive Gardens, and Parks and Plazas. Through their own projects, these design leaders showed how these types of places are evolving to meet the needs of cities today.

Urban parks were originally conceived to provide an escape from the city. Today, urbanites generally consider the city an attractive and livable place. Green infrastructure is no longer developed in opposition to the urban landscape, but rather as an integrated and meaningful component of it. Panelists discussed how recent projects are rejuvenating existing parks and plazas and creating new ones for the contemporary city. Horticulture is critical to defining the function and experience of these civic spaces.

A New Civic Horticulture

Creating civic spaces for urban residents today may be a more elusive task than it was before. As Keith McPeters, principal at landscape architecture firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN), pointed out, previous movements for civic improvement, like the City Beautiful movement, “had centralized definitions that could inform what ‘civic’, ‘beautiful’ or ‘improved nature’ might mean.” Today’s sustainability movement is less definitive. It has taken on many “different meanings expressed through confusing terminologies about nature, landscape, ecology, and habitat.” What then are the standards of a new civic horticulture?

GGN has based their civic projects on a design approach McPeters calls “contemporary picturesque.” This approach respects both the historic principles of the picturesque that are rooted in the creation of scenic spaces and the contemporary need for sustainable, functional, flexible, and community-oriented places. Horticulture is essential to realizing this vision. In their civic projects, GGN explores how plants can both define and organize a space while providing a unique experience, asking “can horticulture create (civic) spaces in the city and be more than pragmatic, like a simple flat green roof?”

GGN incorporates horticulture into civic spaces both as a device to frame and organize space, and as a way to enhance the visitor experience. For Lurie Garden in Chicago, GGN partnered with planting designer Piet Oudolf to create a perennial garden on the waterfront downtown (see image above). An abundance of planting lines the walkways and frames views of both the city and the water. These plantings create a tapestry of color and texture that provides year-round interest. Due to its spectacular quality, the park has become one of the most popular components of the larger Millennium Park.

GGN also employs horticulture in civic spaces as an organizational device for accommodating multiple competing programs within a single site. Centennial Park in Nashville is on the former site of the 1897 Centennial Exposition. In order to account for both historical and contemporary uses of the site as well as new requirements, GGN created a design that would “lend clarity while maintaining complexity.” The space had to be exceptionally scenic as well in order to showcase Nashville’s horticultural heritage. A variety of plantings throughout the site both distinguish and activate various areas and contribute to the park’s overall aesthetic.


Everything Olde is Nouveau Again

In answer to her own question, “Who’s to say what’s civic horticulture?,” Susan Weiler, FASLA, principal at OLIN, said one important manifestation is the rejuvenation of existing major parks and plazas. In Philadelphia, a rich heritage of civic horticulture dates back to William Penn’s Greene Country Towne, which carved five great squares out of the wilderness. The City Beautiful movement and other efforts subsequently led to the creation of several large civic spaces. This existing landscape and horticultural infrastructure has allowed for a “civic renaissance” over the past decade.

Since 2003, OLIN has been working on a redevelopment plan of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Originally conceived as a grand public boulevard in the early 20th century, the iconic parkway devolved into a highway dividing the city after the mid-century. Today, OLIN, in various partnerships with the city and private entities, is realizing a plan that has transformed the parkway into a linear park and sculpture garden that forms the spine of the Museum District and connects to the larger Fairmount Park system. The plan includes several components with a strategy aimed at “transforming a big place a project at a time.”

OLIN has created gardens for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rodin Museum, and Barnes Foundation. Horticulture plays a major role in integrating these museums into one continuous attractive system. Maintaining and supplementing the old growth trees lining the parkway provides shade and emphasizes the linearity and continuity of the park. Plantings in the adjacent public gardens tie into the parkway’s landscape and provide year-round interest.

The Barnes Foundation
Two other manifestations of civic horticulture are the improvement of disadvantaged and decaying areas, and the protection and replenishment of natural resources. Since 2009, OLIN has supported a volunteer effort at the Richard Allen Prep Charter School, helping students express their individual idea of what a garden is. This project creates access to green space and garden cultivation for those who lack it. OLIN also participated in Infill Philadelphia: Soak It Up!, a design competition to re-envision stormwater management throughout the city. Their winning proposal demonstrates how green stormwater infrastructure can conserve resources while transforming neighborhoods.

Olin Soak it Up_300x425

Civic Horticulture in the World of Wirtz

Peter Wirtz, Director of Wirtz International Landscape Architects, explained why it is still important to know about horticulture despite the fact that European design culture predominantly considers it “old fashioned.” Whereas horticulture used to constitute half of a landscape architect’s education, the majority of schools no longer emphasize training students in the basic knowledge of plants. Landscape architects in Europe are consequently not equipped to address warming climate demands, weakened habitats, and declining bird and insect populations. Nor do they have the knowledge of drought- and salt- resistant plants necessary for designing effectively in cities.

Wirtz himself was inspired decades ago by a trip to the Soviet Union in 1970 where he observed an appreciation for urban green space evident in the abundant plantings in street medians and the mixed use of fruiting and ornamental trees. He subsequently created a design-build practice defined by the “absolute dominance of softscape over hardscape.” Advanced construction knowledge and a respect for horticulture informs creative design at Wirtz International. Planting defines the quality of civic spaces that are created to be escapes from the “bombardment” of city life. These oases deny the orthogonal urban grid and transform bodily space in microcosms or “rooms” secluded with plantings.

The structure of the plantings reflects two main ideas used throughout Wirtz International’s work. The first is that a “simple (planting) palette can create and brand the identity of a park.” This is evident on Albert II laan, a boulevard in Brussels, Belgium, where two different species of evenly spaced trees line the the linear park’s diagonal path system.

The second is that an “organic composition with a robust planting palette can survive time.” This is evident at the Camillo Torres student housing complex in Leuven, Belgium, where a low maintenance scheme with dense plantings is still thriving more than ten years later.

This is part three of a three part series on the Civic Horticulture conference. Read part one, The Street, and part two, Productive Gardens

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, former ASLA summer intern and recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania.

Image credits: (1) ASLA 2008 Professional Design Award. Lurie Garden at Millennium Park. Gustafson Guthrie Nichol / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, (2) Centennial Park / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, (3) Barnes Foundation / Design Philadelphia, (4) Infill Design Competition / OLIN Studio, (5) Albert II laan / Wirtz International  (6) Camillo Torres / Wirtz International

Shaping the City with Horticulture: Productive Gardens

Oyster Tecture_300x425
The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society just organized a conference on Civic Horticulture in Philadelphia. Three panels of leading landscape architects discussed the organizational, aesthetic, and productive potential of horticulture. They explained how it is shaping contemporary civic spaces. They presented on three major topics: The Street, Productive Gardens, and Parks and Plazas. Through their own projects, these design leaders showed how these types of places are evolving to meet the needs of cities today.

Productive gardens have become increasingly popular components of the urban landscape. Unused green space and vacant land are often repurposed to grow fresh food for urban dwellers. Panelists discussed ways to enhance these efforts and foster other productive uses of civic spaces. New partnerships provide opportunities to examine larger-scale food production, community-based development, and ecological services. The performative qualities of plants make horticulture an essential part of these explorations.

The Productive Garden

Landscape architect Elena Brescia, ASLA, partner at SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, described cities as “environmental and cultural systems where landscape, beyond formal, economic, and aesthetic interests, can generate a critical participatory effect among citizens.” Landscape offers new ways of intervening in city fabric at the local level using stewardship, grassroots participation, and neighborhood identity as generators of community-based change. SCAPE has experimented with projects both imagined and real that explore this dynamic and the broader potential of what it means to be “productive.” For Brescia, productivity stems not only from a horticultural basis but from a participatory and programatic standpoint as well.

SCAPE’s project, Oyster-tecture, part of the MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibition in 2010, proposed a self-generative, multi-layered, and multi-functional system rooted in oyster production for Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal (see image above). Oysters are native to the canal and were once an important food source in the community. They filter water and naturally agglomerate into reefs. They have the potential to clean the canal’s polluted waters and attenuate waves, addressing issues with water quality and rising tides.

With Oyster-tecture, SCAPE proposed to transform a historically relevant food source into a tool for generating ecological resilience and community-based development. The project argues that the reef armature fabricated from a series of piles supporting woven ropes can provide the oysters with an initial place to grow and propagate. They will eventually form a series of new reef islands that will provide food and habitat for other animals as well as areas for work, research, and recreation for the surrounding community.

SCAPE’s work on the 103rd Street Community Garden in East Harlem also expands on notions of productivity. Completed in partnership with the Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, it’s a positive model for a community garden. The project is both a small-scale agricultural system supported by cultivation plots and rainwater capture and a series of play spaces that accommodate a variety of age groups and activities within a small site. It was a productive catalyst for block revitalization and community participation and has become a neighborhood asset. SCAPE also conceptualized and designed the project so it could be built mostly by local volunteers.

Re-imagining Victory Gardens

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, landscape planner and principal at Mia Lehrer + Associates, provided a definition of “civic horticulture” as “community gardening.” For Lehrer, who focuses much of her work on food production, horticulture is about education and empowerment. Productive gardens and their related systems and infrastructure have the potential to rectify the disconnect between disadvantaged urban communities and their food sources.

The prevalence of food deserts in urban environments has been growing. These food deserts have contributed to the escalating obesity epidemic. Unsettling statistics show the rate of U.S. children contracting chronic health conditions related to obesity more than doubling, from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006. A majority of these children are located in impoverished parts of the inner city, which lack access to fresh food. Many of them do not know where their food comes from or how it is made. Lehrer believes that education and empowerment are imperative to addressing this “Does ketchup grow on trees?” scenario. Landscape architects can play an important role in designing places and systems that help people better connect to their personal health because their “work is about many things, including place, making, healing, beauty, people, cities.”

Lehrer’s practice is experimenting with the “S, M, L, XL” scales of productive gardens, from residential to commercial farming, in Los Angeles. Urban agriculture in the city is moving beyond the scale of the traditional victory garden to consider the larger urban environment and regional food distribution systems. Though the vast surrounding agricultural region produces 50 percent of the fresh fruit and vegetables for the United States and Canada, the city keeps only 1 percent of it and imports the rest. Transforming this “outside-in” strategy to an “inside-out” one requires a reevaluation of the policies that currently structure food distribution, including everything from large-scale agricultural systems to zoning regulations for residential productive gardens and provisions for bartering and selling homegrown food. Lehrer’s “Small” projects include a community garden for the Jordan Downs Housing Project with enough acreage to successfully meet the needs of the entire neighborhood. MAS (“more”), an “extra large” project, is a non-profit food distribution service that designs farmers markets with a focus on providing equal access to fresh local food.

Regardless of the scale and intention, horticulture is an important feature of each project. Fresh food production brings people into contact with the plants that support their basic health. However, not all of Lehrer’s interest in civic horticulture is explicitly about food production. Unique and performative aspects of plants are utilized in other projects. A five-acre “outdoor collection” for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles features a growing wall and an abundance of both native and non-native plants chosen to attract the most species possible. At Orange County Great Park, lima bean fields are remediating a disturbed portion of land. These “medium” and “large” projects demonstrate some of the other productive potential of plants in civic spaces.

From City Beautiful to City Functional

Thomas Woltz, FASLA, landscape architect and principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBW), believes that “horticultural acts are civic acts.” Attitudes toward gardening and plant cultivation vary dramatically and the methodologies used can have significant implications, both positive and negative, for communities, wildlife, and public health. It’s critical to the contemporary practice of landscape architecture to cultivate responsible management strategies, plant choices, and design goals. These can help establish new definitions of productivity that can in turn create “hybridized concepts of gardens, agriculture, and restoration ecology.”

The projects of NBW reflect a desire to respect aesthetic quality while establishing valuable habitat in order to engender a public sense of stewardship and investment in the landscape. Projects are developed with the purpose of fostering a “new form of civic horticulture combining pleasure with responsibility.” Woltz sees civic horticulture as having developed from the City Beautiful to the “City Functional.” He posits that “the next step might focus on productive gardens that operate at the scale of performative urban landscape systems.” NBW has been working with scientists, ornithologists, and conservation biologists to develop rigorous designs that are not only beautiful but also “envisioned with an idea of productivity with an ecological resonance.”

For Woltz, ecological services are a critical part of any landscape’s productivity, regardless of scale. NBW designed a small biodiversity garden for a Manhattan residence that emphasized the creation of bird habitat. Planted with pollinator attractors and nesting and feeding niches, the garden at the Carnegie Hill House is a haven for several species of birds and butterflies. It meets the family’s needs as well with features like a secluded seating area, a sandbox for children, and a green wall for herbs. The design won an ASLA Professional Design Honor Award for successfully creating “a tiny outpost of a much bigger adjacent landscape.”

A larger project at the Medlock Aimes Winery and Tasting Room in Sonoma, California combines ecological services with larger-scale food production. For the biodynamic, organic, solar-powered winery’s outdoor tasting room, NBW designed a productive garden tailored to pairings for tastings. It’s coupled with a stormwater management system. The variety of plantings include native rushes in the swales and an old-growth olive grove transplanted to the site for conservation.

NBW Medlock Ames_300x425
NBW also designed a more traditional productive garden for a public housing complex in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Urban Farm engages residents in growing organic vegetables in the underutilized green space in their community. Residents work by the hour in exchange for tickets they can trade in for fresh produce. The surplus is sold at farmers markets. One extraordinary feature is that the plots are maintained entirely through rain harvested water capture.

This is part two of a three part series on the Civic Horticulture conference. Read part three, Parks and Plazas

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, former ASLA summer intern and recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania.

Image credits: (1) Oyster-tecture / SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, (2) 103rd Street Community Garden in East Harlem / Melissa C. Morris blog, (3) Jordan Downs Housing Project Community Garden / Mia Lehrer + Associates, (4) Orange County Great Park Urban Farm / Mia Lehrer + Associates, (5) Carnegie Hill House by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Eric Piasecki, (6) Medlock Aimes Winery and Tasting Room / Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

Shaping the City with Horticulture: The Street

1111 Lincoln Road_300x425
The Cultural Landscape Foundation and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society just organized a conference on Civic Horticulture in Philadelphia. Three panels of leading landscape architects discussed the organizational, aesthetic, and productive potential of horticulture. They explained how it is shaping contemporary civic spaces. They presented on three major topics: The Street, Productive Gardens, and Parks and Plazas. Through their own projects, these design leaders showed how these types of places are evolving to meet the needs of cities today.

The Street

For decades, decentralized development resulted in automobile-centric streets, but today, cities are re-purposing their streetscapes in a variety of ways, converting them into multi-functional civic spaces. Panelists discussed how these underused or marginal areas can become integral parts of urban infrastructure, providing pedestrian mobility, valuable habitat, and other amenities. Horticulture is an important element in defining the spatial and programmatic quality of streetscapes. Planting mitigates scale, provides continuity and structure, and creates the aesthetic experience.

1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach

Landscape architect Raymond Jungles, FASLA, founding principal of Raymond Jungles, Inc., demonstrated how pedestrian malls can use horticulture to reintegrate nature into the built environment. Jungles helped reclaim one of America’s first pedestrian malls, historic Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach (see image above). He partnered with developer Robert Wennett and architects Herzog & de Meuron to convert a four-lane road back into a pedestrian space and “bring nature into the human environment.”

The main idea for Lincoln Road was to bring the Everglades back into the city. The design achieves this with an abundance of local fauna and a water system that provides both aesthetic and practical functions. Horticulture is the centerpiece of the project. The planting palette displays a variety of shade tree species including native Live Oak, Bald Cypress, and Pond Apple. Placid biofiltration pools reflect light and shadow, creating a pleasant atmosphere while performing  maintenance functions with minimal energy. The planting lends a wild and casual appearance to the mall while supporting a space for retail and both planned and unplanned programs. It also provides habitat for birds and turtles. Locals have nicknamed it the “Urban Glade.”

A Street is a Landscape is a Park is a Trail

Lincoln Road may owe some of its success to contemporary attitudes toward urban space. As another landscape architect, Matthew Urbanski, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), pointed out, pedestrian malls were not as popular a few decades ago. When Lawrence Halprin designed Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall in the mid 1970s, retail was at that time moving out of the city centers and into the surrounding suburbs. Decentralized development did not emphasize pairing pedestrian mobility with attractive amenities. Today, as more people move back into cities and with space at a premium, developers understand the importance of grouping multiple amenities together in one place. Changing attitudes are allowing for experimentation, with hybrid streetscapes combining pedestrian paths and parks into a variety of public spaces. Horticulture is playing a significant role in defining the quality and program of these spaces.

Cities increasingly lack access to the land or economic resources to create public space in the model of Central Park. Green space is more commonly developing out of the imaginative reuse of abandoned land in former industrial areas and along major roadways and waterfronts. Streets, often solely used for vehicular traffic, have become an underutilized resource. Re-imagined to provide economic and ecological services, these “marginal spaces become critical parts of the city’s civic infrastructure or connective tissue,” argued Urbanski. They present an opportunity to develop “synergistic relationships between streetscapes, trails, plazas, and linear parks.”

In addition to providing better mobility for pedestrians and bikers, hybrid streetscapes can accommodate multiple programs, such as the farmer’s market and children’s play areas. An example is the shared space in MVVA’s design for Union Square Park in New York City. These spaces can become virtual oases and perform vital ecological functions. Plantings provide structure and continuity while lending character and interest. MVVA’s Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh successfully transformed a highway “hellscape” into a two-tiered waterfront park. An abundance of native species fill the lower tier closest to the water. The upper tier is a transitional space planted with orderly rows of trees along paths for pedestrians and bikers. It serves as a linear plaza that bridges the city and the waterfront.

Allegheny Riverfront Park_300x425
MVVA is currently developing Hudson Park and Boulevard in New York, a mid-block boulevard that is both significantly wider than the average sidewalk but narrower than a traditional park. Plantings define various programmatic spaces fragmented into islands and scattered throughout the length of the park. Connected via the continuous linear path system spanning the block, they provide shady, flexible green spaces. The park will be an important spine of pedestrian mobility and connectivity downtown. It is expected to serve as both a public amenity and a catalyst for economic development.

The Biophilic Street

Henry White, FASLA, a landscape architect and principal at HM White Site Architecture, also believes horticulture is critical to constructing civic spaces. White subscribes to the biophilia hypothesis: humans have a biological need for nature and that they are attracted to certain habitats and settings in the natural world. The structure and order of natural communities evident in, for instance, the monocultures of northeast woodlands, have an appealing and comforting visual clarity. These elements provide important clues for structuring built spaces like streetscapes.

For White, streets are the primary influence in establishing a sense of place in cities. Successful streetscapes are memorable because they provide the right combination of public amenities within a spatial framework that people can comfortably navigate. Significant streets and boulevards such as the Champs-Elysees in Paris and Las Rambles in Barcelona are notable because they successfully manage the monumentality of their expanse and create desirable civic spaces. Colonnades of trees and other organizational planting strategies emphasize the linear nature of these streets and create transitional spaces between buildings, pedestrian paths, parking, and vehicular traffic. These allees support the gridded condition of cities and are the “park of the parkway.”

White’s practice focuses on extending this design sensibility to streetscapes and other civic spaces. Trees, the “lungs of the city,” and other plantings are primary elements in these designs. When systematically laid out, trees structure spaces and calm the inherent urban visual chaos of their surroundings. Plantings provide ecological and functional services. For HM White’s design of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, double, triple, and quadruple rows of trees organize space and direct circulation. The variety of species provide shade and interest for visitors. For the upgrade of the Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, planted bio-filtration areas function like sponges in the unused parts of the road’s shoulder. They perform a critical maintenance function while providing habitat for various species.

Mosholu Pkway_300x425
This is part one in a three part series on the Civic Horticulture conference. Read part two: Productive Gardens.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, former ASLA summer intern and recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania.

Image credits: (1) Lincoln Road / Raymond Jungles, Inc, (2) Allegheny Riverfront Park / MVVA, (3) Mosholu Parkway / HM White Site Architecture

Inspiring Urban Places Win Rudy Bruner Award

Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago, took home the Bruner Foundation’s Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal, which comes with $50,000 in support for the project. Four other projects won silver medals and $10,000. More than 90 projects were submitted from more than 30 states.

The biennial award celebrates “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The first awards were given in 1987. Together, the Bruner Foundation has awarded 67 projects $1.2 million in support.

Inspiration Kitchens is an “entrepreneurial, nonprofit initiative” on Chicago’s west side. In an economically-challenged part of the city, this LEED Gold certified facility, with a 80-seat restaurant, serves free and affordable healthy meals.
Overlooking Garfield Park‘s lagoons, the restaurant features a “constantly changing menu of regional American cuisine with southern and soul food influences.” The restaurant prides itself on being “earth-friendly, including our use of local ingredients, solar-heated water and sun-sensitive kitchen lighting.”

There, a team organized by Inspiration Corporation, the group behind the project, offers a “thirteen-week training program that helps individuals gain skills and experience leading to food service industry employment.”

Shannon Stewart, executive director and CEO, Inspiration Corporation, said: “We are proud of our success in creating meaningful connections in Garfield Park and are grateful that the award will help us continue to engage with members of this under-served community.” Inspiration Corporation provides social services to Chicagoans hit by homelessness and poverty.

Four other projects won silver medals and $10,000:

The Congo Street Initiative in Dallas, Texas, by buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a non-profit community design center, rehabilitated five houses and constructed a sixth for transitional housing. The housing is LEED Platinum-certified. A green street was created in collaboration with the residents. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.


Louisville Waterfront Park in Louisville, Kentucky, is an 85-acre urban park that re-purposed industrial land and connected the city with the Ohio River. The Urban Land Institute (ULI) recently named it one of the ten best parks in the country. Landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates created the master plan for the park and also designed the Lincoln Memorial there. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

The Steel Yard
in Providence, Rhode Island, designed by landscape architecture firm Klopfer Martin Design Group, is one of the more interesting urban parks to appear in years. The 3.5-acre park in a transformed historic steel fabrication plant won an ASLA professional design award in 2011. The non-profit that runs the site offers a range of creative classes and events. Learn more about the park.

Lastly, Via Verde in Bronx, New York, by Jonathan Rose Companies and Phipps Houses, is a 222-unit, LEED Gold certified, affordable housing development. The project has won numerous architecture awards. The landscape architecture was created by Lee Weintraub, FASLA. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

The 2013 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mick Cornett, Oklahoma City; Ann Coulter, Owner, A. Coulter Consulting; Walter Hood, FASLA, Principal, Hood Design; Cathy Simon – Design Principal, Perkins+Will; Susan Szenasy – Editor-in-Chief, Metropolis Magazine; and Jane Werner, Executive Director, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2013 RBA process, and later this year the Bruner Foundation will publish a book of case studies on the winning projects.

Image credits: (1) Inspiration Kitchen / Inspiration Corporation, (2) Louisville Waterfront Park / Louisville Waterfront Park Corporation, (3) Congo Street Initiative / bcWORKSHOP, (4) The Steel Yard Park / Klopfer Martin, (5) Via Verde / © David Sundberg/Esto

Jinny Blom’s Forget-Me-Not Garden

Jinny Blom, a master landscape and garden designer in the UK, has used a modest space at the Chelsea Garden show to create a rich, multi-layered garden that may also do some good. Commissioned by Sentebale, a children’s charity founded by Prince Harry and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, and B&Q, a UK home improvement store, the garden is designed to not only be beautiful but also raise awareness about Lesotho’s “needy and vulnerable children, many of whom are victims of extreme poverty and Lesotho’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

Sentebale means “Forget Me Not” in Sesotho, the language of Lesotho, a small, landlocked kingdom in the Drakensburg / Maluti mountain range of southern Africa that has a population of around 1.8 million. According to a press release, the Forget-Me-Not theme was central part of the partnership and garden. Lesotho is sometimes described as the Forgotten Kingdom, and those kids could certainly be easily forgotten by the global community.

Of course, Forgot–Me-Nots are featured in the garden, woven in with anthriscus, poppies, and other plants, like Silene Fimbriata, a native of Lesotho.


But Blom also used “British natives – Scots pines for the snowy highlands, sea buckthorn for their arid lees, and pollared willows for their Salix with which the people of Lesotho are repairing the ravages of deforestation in their valley delta,” wrote Country Life magazine, which described the garden as a “convincing homage to the mountain kingdom.”

Blom said “Lesotho has a fascinating landscape and culture that confounds one’s expectations of what makes a country ‘African.’ I am hoping to express not only the beauty and rich culture yet also the inaccessibility and fragility of the country.”

She told The Daily Telegraph, “at one end there’s a round pavilion, echoing the houses the people of Lesotho build, the mountains, the pointy hats they wear.” The Telegraph wrote in the middle of the garden, “there is the floor of a mud ‘rondavel,’ an African-style hut, imprinted with tiny footprints. Dotted around it around are willow trees, pines, and papyrus, leading down to a terrace depicting hearts and crowns, a motif Blom saw on a blanket, in grey and pink sandstone.”

On working with global superstar, Prince Harry, Blom said he was a “very detailed, conscientious person – he wanted to know everything about the design  – and in that he reminded me of his Pa.” Blom said he was so focused on the details because he sees the garden not only as an important awareness-building tool for his charitable work but also as an homage to his mother, Princess Diana.

The amount of work that goes into these garden shows, which only last a few days, is pretty awe-inducing. Blom told Radio Times, “this is the plant Oscars. Every plant has to look its best.” To ensure that happened, she actually grew 12,500 plants to make sure she could use 4,500. She also took on a personal trainer to make sure she was in shape to do all the heavy lifting with the trees. “It’s exhausting.”

To ensure the project doesn’t end with the garden’s demise, the team behind this event also produced a song (MP3). Blom told us: “I felt that music, which is massive in Basotho culture, would be a good ongoing medium for the charity and perhaps, if we got it right, might create an income stream for them. With this in mind we came up with this 28 minute ambient piece that ends with a massive pop song.” Created by UK music producer Marc Fox and composed by Peter John Vetesse, the song fuses the UK with Lesotho. “We have real Basotho poets and singers, Welsh Male voice choirs, and Esme, the twelve year old daughter of my friend Melanie Pappenheim (who just sang Damon Albarn’s new opera and is the voice of Dr. Who) sings the pop song. There’s string orchestras, percussionists, and even me!”

Learn more about Blom’s work in this ASLA interview.

In other Chelsea garden show news, gnomes seem to have infested some garden exhibits, to the “horror of many,” writes The New York Times. “‘Gnomes?’ said one exhibitor on Monday, when the show opened in preview. ‘I can’t comment on gnomes.'”

Image credits: (1-3, 5) Sentebale Garden / copyright Jinny Blom, 2013 (4) Lesotho / Sentebale, (6) Prince Harry with Lesothon youth / Sentebale

Preserving Nigeria’s Evil Forests

Throughout history, cultures around the world have created the concept of the evil forest, a dark, scary place where bad things happen. In Europe, these were places where witches or wolves (or even werewolves) attacked the lone passer-by. In Igbo areas of Nigeria, the Ajofia, or bad bush, still exists in some communities, although they are rapidly disappearing with development. Their potency to scare the population into line has also faded with younger generations. In these places, the traditional culture that created them has transformed in the face of modernization and a growing consumer culture. In a session at Dumbarton Oaks’ conference on cultural landscapes in Sub Saharan Africa, Ikem Stanley Okoye, University of Delaware, explained why Nigerians should start thinking about preserving some of these unique cultural landscapes.

Okoye said in contrast to what European colonialists in Africa believed, Africans did produce landscapes that were visual representations of complex concepts. Europeans believed that Africans were “not invested in their landscape,” and really had no indigenous landscape art or architecture to speak of. “Africa was contrasted with the West, which was viewed as having thought-out philosophy, landscapes, and architecture. Africa art was never seen representing landscapes.” This belief was convenient because it enabled colonialists to then occupy and ransack local resources for their own use.

Indeed, those powerful landscapes that Europeans were clueless about are still shaping the culture in Nigeria. In Okija, a Igbo traditional village in the Anambra state of southern Nigeria, priests were arrested in an Ajofia in 2004 after 30 plus corpses were discovered at the site. Amid fears of human sacrifices, the police rushed in and destroyed the forest shrines. The entire “visually spectacular raid whipped up a media frenzy.” There was “intense anxiety” about another “traditional eruption,” which, ironically enough, said Okoye, was how Western missionaries used to respond to aspects of traditional culture.

The Nigerian media and much of the public basically rushed to judgement, said Okoye. The criticism was, “why can’t they use their forests like other communities use theirs?” He thinks the priests involved “probably did nothing illegal, or beyond their own traditional Igbo norms.” It’s unlikely that missing persons were killed and buried there; more likely there were burials according to Igbo traditions over many decades. But what really shocked Nigeria was the hidden list investigators found, which showed how many of Nigeria’s rich and powerful were somehow involved. “There were scores of names, from governors to chiefs of police.” There were very public firings of officials found on the lists, and the president eventually had to intervene to protect some careers. Okoye then wondered whether the Ajofia, which was viewed as powerful because of its “impenetrable secrecy,” actually had any efficacy to keep people in line anymore, particularly given the harsh media condemnation. Almost ten years later, the Nigerian press is still interested in the story.

These days, the evil forests are actually diminishing. “The fiercesome wilderness now has limits.” Every village in southern Nigeria Igbo areas has a market and, close by, an evil forest. Towns are in effect divided into places that reflect good and bad, so some places have to represent negative powers and therefore become evil themselves. Okoye said these forests became dumping grounds for all of society’s ills. Suicides, who are anathema in Igbo culture, used to be simply dumped there to rot, unburied. Twins, who are bad luck, used to be left there. “This is place were they dump cultural garbage. This is a negative space.”

It’s also only a place priests can go. “They can enter and leave unharmed.” Once in the forest, they harvest plants, roots, and herbs to make traditional medicines that help ward off evil. “For everyone else, this is a fearful place, a place to be avoided.” And to this day, the cinema of Nigeria, which is often called “Nollywood,” often features horrifying forests with witches.

Funnily enough, Okoye said when the European colonialists arrived, the Ajofia were the first land the Igbo gave them, so to this day, you often find churches within Ajofia or next door, simply because they carved a road through what was previously a larger evil forest. The early Christians simply didn’t care that the land was deemed tainted.

Within the active Ajofia, which Okoye courageously examined on foot, there are “evil people art objects” and even landscape architecture. Claustrophobia-inducing paths cut through dense vegetation provide access points for priests who gather medicines. There are pots and vessels, which are often left at shrines at the edge of these places. An arrangement of twigs and organic materials spookily hanging from a string is actually a microcosm of the larger evil forest. “It is a landscape within a landscape. The landscape is also seen as an object.”

Okoye said, unfortunately, these fascinating places are getting taken over by development. “There is no constituency for these forests anymore,” except perhaps among old Igbo who still believe in their power. Interestingly, with the eradication of these places, crime has also risen in the villages that used to have them. Okoye thinks that’s because the power of the Ajofia to keep the community in check is waning. “There’s no present reminder of what will happen to you if you are bad.”

Okoye called for saving these places because they are “great archeological resources.” More and more archeologists are actually investigating garbage dumps and the negative spaces of society because those places tell them a lot about society – what those people valued or threw away. There is a rich history there: Many Ajofia appeared where “trans-atlantic slavery was particularly intense.”

Image credit: (1) Evil Forest Shrine / Linda Ikeji’s blog

Djenne: An Evolving Cultural Landscape

Djenne market / Wikipedia, Ferdinand Reus, CC-SA-2.0

Who manages a cultural landscape that has global importance? Does the United Nations have final say or the local community? It turns out a complex web of interests shape these evolving cultural landscapes, particularly if people still live there and they aren’t just outdoor museums. In a fascinating session at Dumbarton Oaks’ latest conference on cultural landscapes in Sub Saharan Africa, Charlotte Joy, an anthropologist at University of London, delved into Mali’s convoluted history with UNESCO World Heritage program and one local community’s efforts to preserve a cultural landscape people still call home.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was formed with the rest of the UN System in the mid-1940s. Its philosophy, said Joy, was always to “foster inter-cultural dialogue through education.” The idea behind the organization was to “construct peace in the minds of men,” not just through disarmament and economic development. The thinking was if cultures could better understand each other, they would go to war with each other less.

In 1972, after years of debate about what constitutes significant cultural value and the best ways to preserve the sites that embody it, UNESCO’s member states signed the World Heritage Convention and, six years later, formed the first World Heritage List. Today, the list, which includes some 962 sites, is seen as a critical tool for spreading knowledge about cultures. The current list includes some 745 cultural sites and 188 natural ones. Some 157 are combined cultural and natural sites. According to Joy, Africa has just 86 sites, mostly in the natural category. Just to note: Cultural landscapes are a special sub-set of world heritage sites. Within this group, there are “clearly defined, organically evolved, and associative” cultural landscapes.

Mali, a country in the north west corner of Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to four sites, two of which – Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia – are critically threatened. In March of last year, a coup was started by an army officer, who was unhappy with the government response to a Tuareg rebellion. Soon after, the coup leaders attacked government sites in Bamako. Then, fighting with the Tuareg, who had partnered with an Al Qaeda affiliate, dramatically escalated. At one point, the Tuareg actually took control of Timbuktu, but they were soon repelled by French military forces, who have intervened in the conflict. Joy made a point of saying that Tuareg rebellions are nothing new in Mali, and have been happening at least since 1916. “There have been a large number of rebellions. Tuaregs are fighting for recognition, land, and self-definition.”

Mali’s economy has been devastated by both the conflict and the international community’s effective isolation of the new Malian leadership. Tourists aren’t coming to visit Mali’s amazing cultural sites because governments are listing the sites as unsafe. This is in part because many don’t have any formal communications with the new government.

Culture has always been big economic driver there. Joy said the cultural ministry even created a detailed “cultural map” of the country, with each region’s distinct art, music, and earth works. But all that amazing cultural heritage isn’t just for tourists: While there are many world music festivals that attract European tourists, local roots program radio stations and TV documentaries attract a wide domestic audience. Way before UNESCO created its list, “Mali was secure in its rich cultural heritage. This has always been a cultural landscape.”

In the relatively safe city of Djenne, south of Timbuktu, there is the UNESCO site Old Town. UNESCO put Djenne on the list because it’s an “authentic cityscape,” its “architectural whole is viewed as iconic.” Joy said “UNESCO loves Djenne because its African, monumental, and architectural.”

Mosque in Djenne / Bensozia

But she said the bounded lines of UNESCO’s definition of the Old Town don’t tell the true story of cultural heritage in Djenne. “For locals, it’s always been about Djenne and its surrounding landscape.” Gardens around the old town are used for growing food, while cattle herders move their animals and farmers grow rice. “Djenne can then be conceptualized as a formal cultural landscape,” not just as a set of old buildings.

Djenne has always had political value to Mali’s leaders. The founders of Mali pointed to it as “evidence of the democratic roots of Mali.” Interestingly, it began as a non-Islamic civilization, even though there are many Muslims who live there now. Its cultural value has shifted over time, at least for the locals who live there. Archeological sites within the old town are now off limits to the locals who have lived there for generations.

Age-old building techniques and materials have also changed, for the worst. Square bricks were introduced by the French, changing the traditional building construction techniques. “Before, masons in Djenne used round, cylindrical bricks.” Joy said the masons think the new bricks are inferior to the old.

The mud used to cover the buildings, which has its own special chemistry, has changed over the years. Before, corn husks were worked into the mud to strengthen it. Now, those corn husks have to actually be imported at great expense from other parts of Africa. The river from which the mud came from used to be rich in fish. Dead fish bones added necessary elements to the mud. With the loss of fish stock, “they now make poorer clay.”

Before, all able-bodied men and kids came out to help apply a fresh coat of mud to the mosque and other buildings in an annual rite. But with increased regulation, created by UNESCO, locals weren’t allowed to do it for a period of time because layers of recent mud forms were deemed to be out of compliance with the original forms. UNESCO asked the old town’s elders and masons to remove mud to go back to original design. “For five years, locals couldn’t apply the mud.” The community is back at work applying mud to the facades once again this year, or at least when the town elders decide it has reached the right consistency.

Applying mud to mosque in Djenne / Key Africa

Joy said “there has to be a balance between regulating a place and actually living in it.” In effect, outside regulation can really interfere with locals’ ability to preserve their own cultural heritage, severing them from their cultural landscapes. She wondered how a cultural landscape that people live in can be trapped in time, particularly a time hundreds of years in the past. “People can’t live the same way indefinitely.” Also, can Djenne really ever be made to stay the same, “given the aquifers have changed, acid rain has affected the buildings, rice husks are now imported?”

She believes international organizations have an “ethical imperative to understand how people relate to a landscape” and adjust based on how that relationship changes over time. Joy also believes UNESCO missed the boat in terms of defining the cultural boundaries of the city. “The heritage is really found in the edge, in the periphery. What’s important is the symbolic relationship between the old town and the surrounding landscape.”

Djenne fisherman / Flickr

Other presentations explored the challenges of cultural landscape heritage management in Sub-Saharan Africa. Innocent Pikirayi, University of Pretoria, South Africa, described UNESCO World Heritage Site Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe as a “power-scape,” a contested political terrain. “There have been so many meanings projected on to this place.” Today, it’s officially a “sacred, protected site.” But in reality this means the local community who could actually support its upkeep has been barred from using the site as a spiritual landscape.

Early settlers, from 900 – 1450 AD, brought the population of the Great Zimbabwe area to around 18-20,000, which made it “comparable in size to pre-industrial London.” Beginning in the 1550s, the civilization that created the site began to decline, as it lost out to other civilizations in the gold trade. For hundreds of years, the site was “largely silent, abandoned,” until it was “discovered” by Europeans. With Cecil Rhodes and the rise of European settlers in Rhodesia (the European name for what is now Zimbabwe), the site’s history was “appropriated and falsified.” Then, with the rise of African nationalism “there was a purge of European scientific archeology,” in favor of making Great Zimbabwe a “national symbol.” Long-time dictator Robert Mugabe has “manipulated the past for political gain.”

The end result, said Pikirayi, is this vital place has actually lost its “sacredness” because the “spirit of the place is now inaccessible to the local community.” Some locals believe the gods are upset by this, which is why there are now “bush fires and other natural disasters.”

Maano Ramutsindela, University of Cape Town, South Africa, then discussed “how regions translate into cultural landscapes.” He described how regions, which share geographic, political, economic, and cultural characteristics, make up Sub-Saharan Africa. In Mali, for example, these “cultural regions actually define the landscape.” Cultural regions also mingle with natural habitats, creating interesting “human-environmental relationships,” such as migratory routes. Today, he is looking at Peace Parks, those inter-border zones that transect political boundaries. The idea is to create regional national parks that aren’t separated by borders, given animals don’t know whether they are in Mozambique, Tanzania, or South Africa. Conservation then creates new layers in these regional cultural landscapes.

Nearly Unknown in the West: Sub-Saharan Africa’s Cultural Landscapes

Mapungubwe Hill National Park, South Africa / Wikipedia, Marius Loots, CC BY-SA 3.0

According to Professor Ikem Stanley Okoye, University of Delaware, “there has been no scholarly work that explores African landscapes that doesn’t somehow implicate the Europeans.” That statement may be less true given a recent conference on cultural landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa at Dumbarton Oaks. Organized by John Beardsley, the head of landscape and garden studies there, the two-day symposium was designed to contribute to a growing African understanding of their own landscapes, including pre-colonial landscapes and how perceptions of these landscapes were altered during the era of colonialism. Speakers also examined how landscapes are intimately linked with cultural and political identities today.

Beardsley said Africa has an amazing range of “biotic zones,” filled with elephants, lions, or, as conservationists like to call them, “charismatic mega-fauna.” Beyond the wildlife though, Sub-Saharan Africa is also the “oldest inhabited landscape, the cradle of human species.” With thousands of years of history, the cultural landscapes that make up the region are equally as rich and diverse, if unknown in the West.

Below are snippets from the provocative presentations that asked us to really think when we look at Sub-Saharan African landscapes:

Is the Field of Garden and Landscape Studies Racist?

Grey Gundaker, Dittman professor of anthropology and African Studies at the College of William & Mary, said a review of garden and landscape studies survey literature over the past 40 years yielded only three articles on Sub-Saharan Africa, and those were the briefest of mentions. She said this was a prime example of how to “talk around something.” Basically, “African landscapes have been omitted.” She thinks that’s because African landscapes are loaded with the negative history of slavery, the guilt associated with that. But perhaps too often they are still treated as this “baseline upon which the superiority of the West rests” and not seen as having much value in themselves.

In garden and landscape studies, “blackness is a special case of ‘other.'” African landscapes are not only marginalized but perhaps the most marginalized. For example, she noted how Western garden and landscape survey books, which cover all styles of designed landscapes, will include some mention of Japanese zen gardens, along with perhaps some mention of Egypt, “the paler umbrella of the Middle East,” but Africa is the “unspeakable word.” The message: “Africans haven’t designed anything of real value.” If African landscapes are mentioned, “the agents, the designers are European. Africans are welcome to resist what Europeans do to them but they don’t bring things out themselves.” Gundaker argued that there’s a “legacy of embedded racism” that plagues garden and landscape studies to this day.

Gundaker said the practice of landscape architecture appeared in 18th century Europe around the same time as the appearance of Hegel and Voltaire. “The emergence of landscape architecture and all these other scientific ideas happened at the same time.” Unfortunately, that time also marked the escalation of the slave trade, with more than 6 million Africans taken from their continent. She said the gory truth was that many of the most beautiful gardens in Europe were actually paid for with money from the slave trade. She said it’s “no accident then that garden and landscape studies excluded Africa.”

Arab Slave Traders along the Ruvuma River / Wikipedia, Public Domain, Unknown author – In: Horace Waller: The last journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1865 to his death. London, 1874. 

With the fading of the slave trade, the European economic system had to diversify or die, so the next focus was on “resources that could be extracted from Africa.” To make those resources – and the natural landscapes they were found in – more easily extractable, they had to be disparaged or degraded, so, again, Gundaker argues, African cultural landscapes were also devalued.

As a result, in the major garden and landscape survey books created over the past 50 years, like The Landscape of Man, the “overt exclusionary discourses” didn’t even pass historians’ minds. The “genius of an artist’s discovery” was made primary, not their inspirations. As an example, she showed an image of Roberto Burle Marx’s famous Copacabana boardwalk. This was seen as the original vision of a Modernist master. Little known was those fractal patterns were lifted from African dresses Burle Marx had seen on his trips to Africa. In the same way, “scholars of Modernism never highlighted African forms.”

Copacabana Boardwalk by Roberto Burle Marx / The Traveling Isle

Indeed, to be deemed successful, a design must be viewed as having linear forms and “be Euclidian” in its precision. The cosmological landscapes of pre-literate, pre-industrial Sub-Saharan African societies were left out, even though they were incredibly complex abstract ideas expressed in landscape form. The default garden template in the West became “contemplative and meditative.” Africa’s great spiritual, and even practical, productive urban agriculture landscapes were omitted. While specialists have long focused on specific African landscapes, the survey books used to teach generations of Western landscape architects and designers simply bypassed all of this.

Can We Learn to Read the African Landscape?

Suzanne Preston Blier, Professor of Fine Arts, African, and African American Studies, Harvard University, who gave a fascinating talk on Yoruban landscapes at Dumbarton Oaks a few years ago, then tried to show the crowd how to actually read Sub-Saharan African landscapes, without being clouded by European colonial perceptions of these places. Blier said African landscapes require “new modes of reading. What you don’t see is often what’s most important.” She explored some “iconic models,” the idea of materials, and then African landscape shapes, like the cone, fence, square, and circle.

One iconic Sub-Saharan African model is the trap, which can really be anything that captures or holds something. Traps can be seen as indigenous African art. The model of a trap, Blier showed, plays out in a range of forms — from water vessels to fishing nets to homes where people live.

Another value is autochthony, or being indigenous. Blier said many African communities “honor those who were there first,” by creating principles and rights associated with ancestry. So much African art then includes images of game, because they provide sustenance, but also because they were there first, they are ancestors to be honored.

She showed images of how different African cultures honor ancestors. In the Ife area of Nigeria, religious ceremonies involve creating a hole in the ground, so as to communicate with ancestors directly. There, ancestors are also buried under floors, so earthen buildings aren’t just homes but also tombs. “It’s about connecting present to past.” In Igbo areas of Nigeria, elaborate costumes offer ways to act out important messages to ancestors. These ceremonies aren’t mindless traditions: “There is great creativity in how ancestors are presented.”

Igbo mask dancers performing during the Onwa Asaa festival, Ugwuoba village, Nigeria / Smithsonian Institution Collection Archives

Africans closely engage the earth. When Blier was living in a Nigeria village, she couldn’t understand why African women were using such small brooms, leaning all the way down to sweep the village clear of bugs and detritus. She asked them, “why didn’t you use a long broom so you don’t have to stoop?” She laughed, adding that she soon discovered the practice was about “engaging with the earth up close.” Earthen arts, like drawings, are widespread.

Time plays a different role in African landscapes. In many African languages she said, “the past and present are the same word.” What does that mean in practice for African landscape architecture? The future will be like the past, in an endless cycle.

She said in contrast with the West, hard and soft is reversed in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Hard” buildings, made of mud or wood, are designed to fade back into nature and be constantly remade, while “soft” vegetation is what stays and even thrives. In Ghana, for example, African urban planners planted trees first and then built markets around them. In another example of the perceived permanence of nature: Africa was the first to domesticate nature, to grow millet, rice, and cut lumber. In the West, it’s the buildings that are designed to stay somewhat longer, and the vegetation is controlled, set upon.

African forms are distinctive landscape elements, too. Blier says some scholars believe the pyramids in Egypt were actually a variation of the earlier African cone form. The cone shows itself in so many things there, in the shape of termite hills, the salt stored in a market, and shrines.

Termite Hill of the Savannah / Travel Blog

Fences are critical. There are living fences made of trees or bushes. Ancient African cities have city walls and trenches of all types of sizes. “Their purposes and forms vary.” Lastly, there are also “human fences” that form for ceremony. Groups interlock arms, creating smaller exclusive spaces.

Location is important, as it is just about anywhere on earth. In one community, “the most powerful people are in the lowest area” because it’s closer to water. In one kingdom, the king lived on top of a hill, because his view was all encompassing. “Observation was power.” In still other communities, Africans created some of the first hill-side terrace villages and farming systems.

In comments after the session, Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, a Kenyan professor and landscape architect, said back in the colonial era, “landscapes only existed if white people saw them. Blackness was basically deleted. It’s like nothing south of Egypt existed.” He added that in the eyes of European colonialists, works of global heritage like the Great Zimbabwe “couldn’t have been created by ancient black people. They were too intelligent.”

Cone tower of the Great Zimbabwe / Wikipedia, Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 3.0

While perceptions have dramatically changed for the better, “the spiritual aspect of African landscapes is still hard to understand in the West.” Works of landscape architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa are largely set up for “spiritual reasons.”