Designing Urban Agriculture

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Landscape architect April Philips, FASLA, prefaces her new book, Designing Urban Agriculture: A Complete Guide to the Planning, Design, Construction, Maintenance, and Management of Edible Landscapes, by writing, “because the food system in America is broken, the health of our cities and communities are at risk.” Indeed, access to healthy food is severely limited in many urban neighborhoods, while industrial agriculture is itself a massively-polluting enterprise. By situating food systems as “part of a city’s urban systems network,” Philips frames food as a design issue instead of simply a horticultural concern. With Designing Urban Agriculture, Philips sets out to explain not only how to design urban-scale agricultural landscapes, but also how designers can collaborate with communities to change urban food systems.

Designing Urban Agriculture is an exhaustive textbook on food and urban design. Topics such as food justice, systems thinking, public health, ecological agriculture, public policy, and construction methods are supported by numerous illustrated case studies. For instance, the Lafayette Greens project in Detroit, Michigan, which recently won an ASLA professional award, shows how edible landscapes can be agents of transformation. Designed by Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture, this three-quarter-acre landscape replaces a recently demolished building, beautifying what would otherwise be a vacant lot. Over 200 species of edible plants are grown on the site, which functions not only as a farm, but also as a recreational space for office workers and downtown residents. In this way, Lafayette Greens serves as a catalyst for the continuing transformation of downtown Detroit. The site’s design makes extensive use of repurposed and salvaged materials, continuing this theme of regeneration.

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While urban agriculture has been successful at a local scale, it has yet to economically challenge existing industrial food systems. However, efforts to increase the scale and economic viability of urban farming are underway. Big City Farms in Baltimore is a for-profit agricultural operation that aims to establish a network of farms on vacant land across the city. Big City Farms’ pilot project entails six 3,000 square-foot plastic hoop greenhouses built on top of a contaminated brownfield site. Because of this contamination, all plants are grown on top of the preexisting site using imported soil. In addition to profitability, Big City Farms’ goals include the generation of green jobs and the distribution of organic food to local consumers.

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Philips stresses that the success of urban farming depends on integrating ecological, economic, and cultural systems. She writes, “with urban agricultural landscapes, the ultimate sustainability goal is to design systems that allow for accommodating a dynamic of interdependence.” For example, Our School at Blair Grocery, an urban farm and educational facility in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, responds to the neighborhood’s nutritional, economic, and social needs stemming from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The operation educates neighborhood youth in both agricultural and business practices – students not only grow food on the site, but also sell it to markets across the city, gaining valuable skills in the process.

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The above examples barely scratch the surface of Designing Urban Agriculture. This is a textbook filled with tons of details. It could be the foundational text of a semester-long course in a landscape architecture school. Certainly, it should be required reading for any landscape architecture student interested in urban farming.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Wiley, (2) ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award Winner. Lafayette Greens. Keith Weikal Landscape Architecture / image credit: Beth Hagenbuch, (3) Big City Farm / The Baltimore Sun, (4) School at Blair Grocery / School at Blair Grocery blog

A New Take on Suburbia

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Suburban sprawl is nearly universally denigrated. Aerial photography reveals sprawl to be malignant housing divisions metastasizing across the landscape — a wasteful, ecologically devastating byproduct of a host of misguided policy decisions and cultural values. In contrast to dense urban centers, which are widely promoted as hotbeds of creative thought and innovation, suburbia is closely associated with stifling conformity. In the view of many urban planners and designers, suburban sprawl is essentially a mistake. However, given that a majority of Americans live in the suburbs, should we so quickly dismiss suburbia as a purely negative force? Has suburbia’s unique low-density environment incubated any positive cultural changes independent of the city?

In Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, Christopher Sellers argues that American environmentalism largely arose out of suburbia. Sellers lays out an alternative narrative for the cultural impact of the suburbs.

He argues that suburban expansion is typically viewed in terms of two distinct narratives: city building and nature destroying. In the city-building narrative, suburbanization is viewed in terms of the expansion of the built environment out from the urban core. This view ignores nature, instead concentrating on factors such as economics, infrastructure, and people. The nature-destroying narrative arose as a reaction to this viewpoint, casting suburbanization as a process of consuming natural lands. This narrative still predominates environmental thinking today.

Sellers contends that both of these narratives perpetuate an overly restrictive definition of nature, where nature only exists outside of human influence. As an alternative, he promotes an ecological narrative for suburbanization, where the environment represents a hybrid of natural and human systems. In his view, suburban expansion does not erase nature, but instead creates a new kind of hybrid suburban nature, where ecological systems unavoidably intersect with human settlement.

Using Long Island, New York, and Los Angeles as case studies, Sellers illustrates how American environmentalism first gained traction as a suburban grassroots movement. As Sellers writes, “around 1970, no cluster of issues contributed more to a new environmental politics than the multiple affronts to land, water, air, and human flesh in America’s most transformed urban edges.”

This book is significant because, whether we like them or not, the suburbs are not going anywhere. Instead of devoting all our energy toward designing new communities, shouldn’t we concentrate on improving what we already have? We can reconsider what suburbia has already given us and what it can become.

By tracing the emergence of environmentalism in suburbia and then valuing hybrid suburban nature, Crabgrass Crucible puts to rest the narrative of suburbia as a purely nature-destroying phenomenon. The challenge now is how we might exploit these low-density settlements for ecological and social benefit. Sellers writes, “Any resolve to propel an entire society toward a more sustainable future must take seriously the nature near where most people live, at least as much as the nature where fewer people reside.”

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: University of North Carolina Press

Restoration: Another Layer of History

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Restoring post-industrial, particularly post-military, landscapes means adding another layer of history to places that already have many. For a group of environmental philosophers at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) in Madison, Wisconsin, those earlier layers of history each have an important meaning — and it’s important they aren’t lost as landscapes long-damaged by industrial or military use are restored.

Preserving Ruination at Orford Ness

According to professor Caitlin DeSilvey, a cultural geographer at the University of Exeter, Orford Ness, a shingle-ridge landscape in the UK, was a secret site for military research during World War II. In 1953, the UK’s National Trust took over the land and transformed it into a sort of preserve. She said military testing, including testing with atomic and chemical weapons, had a “severe effect on the native landscape.” Now, efforts are underway to improve the habitat while managing public access.

There are signs everywhere explaining the still-lurking dangers of unexploded ordinance. If you stay on the paths, the site is “safe but not comfortable.” The remaining buildings are especially uncomfortable. She said there was a “deliberate decision to let the relics of military structures decay.”  A test pit for chemical weapons is now a lagoon filled with rainwater. Moss covers all the surfaces. Yellowhorn poppies appear inside the buildings. But even then, these structures still offer a “palpable sense of secrecy and threat.”

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Beyond these structures, the weedy ruderal ecosystem is starting to appear among the disturbed shingle (rocky rubble) landscape. DeSilvey said Orford Ness’ revival as a landscape is the “naturalization of a violent period of history.” In this instance, nature softens its history.

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DeSilvey also said “there’s beauty in decay.” Orford Ness provides a window into that process and change. Indeed, the site’s fascination may be its “troubling resonance and incoherence.” There are no “pure zones,” only messiness, as the shingles approach, spilling through the door of buildings.

Unfortunately, the question remains whether the National Trust will let the decay stay. If the site is moved into another category of historical value, the site may end up being “cleaned-up.” For now, there are just guided tours through the relics. Artists’ installations have also been added to the landscape. Luckily “they are making a virtue of decay.” (see more images).

Applying Nietzsche’s Three Histories to Landscape Preservation

“What role should history play in restoration?,” asked professor Jozef Keulartz, Wageningen University. This is actually a tricky question, given history can be different based on your point of view. Citing Friedrich Nietzsche, the great writer and philosopher, he said “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Nietzsche thought there were three forms of history: antiquarian, monumental, and critical. Ideally, these three forms of history will balance and correct each other.

Antiquarian history is about the “preservation and admiration of the past.” While positive from a historic preservation point of view, the danger, said Keulartz, is “everything old becomes over-estimated; everything new is thrown out.” This approach can “mummify life” and preserve the “on-going tyranny of the past.” Too often, Keulartz said, England takes an antiquarian approach with their historic sites. As an example, he pointed to the Geevor Tin Mine, which has been kept in its original state. Visitors can take tours and experience the life of a miner.

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In contrast, monumental history is opposed to mummification; it’s a “counterpoint to being stuck in the past.” Monumental history is all about “inspiring contemporary man, finding teachers from the past and using them as role models to encourage future progress.” The danger there is “history can become a fiction, a grab-bag.” Keulartz said the Dutch were less conservative than the English about their historic preservation projects and use a “pragmatic style.” In one example, the Western Gas Factory, the Dutch restored a Neo-Renaissance-style building but renovated for creative uses, including exhibitions, fashion shows, and festivals. “Monumental history is about conserving through development, the creation of new spatial values.” In this model, places get a second life. “It’s a practical use of the past, but in danger of being shallow.”

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In Nietzsche’s critical history, man has the strength to “shatter the past” and “erase histories.” It’s not about “examining the past but destroying it” in order to create a new future. This kind of whole-sale condemnation of the past can be dangerous because “we can destroy the past but can’t escape from it.” Keulartz cautioned, “we can hope for a more decent future but this may be a false hope.” Germany, which is “anything but proud of its past,” often takes a critical historical approach to many of its historic sites.

For Keulartz, one site achieves Neitzsche’s difficult balance of history: Landscape Park Duisborg Nord, which was created by landscape architect Peter Latz. There, lots of plants and trees are mixed within the post-industrial factory landscape. While nature has appeared spontaneously, the reoccupation of the site by nature was stimulated in other areas. Nature was designed, with gardens placed throughout. Duisborg took an old pit and made it the biggest indoor diving pool in the EU. A wall was re-purposed as a climbing course. “Duisborg is about reusing and remembering.”

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Learning How to Read the Landscape

For professor Martin Drenthen, Radboud University, determining the restoration goals for a historic landscape is a loaded process filled with lots of value judgements. Historic landscapes have obviously undergone significant changes over the years, reflecting “conflicting interpretations of the landscape.” As such, with any restoration project, the “meaning of the landscape may not be immediately apparent.”

There have been a ton of books published around the theme of “reading the landscape.” These books argue that “landscapes are essentially texts,” in which layers of meaning must be mined and read. “Places embody people’s histories and cultural identities. Their context explains who we are.” Landscapes are literally “infested with meanings.” For example, he said the idyllic Dutch landscape reflects the “virtues Dutch have cultivated and represent Dutch culture. They reflect the dialogue between man and nature.”

Restoring the ecological function of a site, “rewilding” it, is another “deepening of the history of a site.” It can be “sense of place 2.0.” Underneath all of those human layers, “wilderness always reigns so re-wilding really has a moral message, too. It’s about recognizing the value of history and successive layers but that deeper layers have special importance.” Layered landscapes are like a palimpsest.

But Drenthen added that “each new interpretation of a landscape needs to be open,” too, to allow for future layers of meaning to be added. As an example, he pointed to the work of artist Michael van Bahel, who “doesn’t destroy history” with his new art works, but exposed hidden layers. In one piece, he created a viewing portal for understanding a historical war site. Here, “art is the lens.”

Restoring One of America’s Largest Superfund Sites

Back in the U.S., post-industrial sites are also being restored, raising the same sorts of issues. In Butte, Montana, efforts are underway to restore the area around the 1-mile-wide by 1.5-mile-long Berkeley Pit, one of the largest SuperFund sites in the U.S, into its natural state. According to Michigan Tech professor Frederic Quivik, the former copper mine dump site, which was owned by Anaconda Copper, has “extremely toxic water, some 1,000-feet deep.” But beyond the pit, tailings from the mining actually traveled along the Clark Fork River all the way to Missoula. Quivik said while copper mining is certainly destructive, “everyone is complicit. Everyone loves copper. Automobiles and airplanes depend on copper.”

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Not only did the copper pollute Butte and other communities along the Clark Fork River, it also impacted the air and land. Quivik said in the mid-1950s, smoke pollution from the smelting process poured “arsenic, sulfur, and iron” waste materials into the atmosphere. Livestock in range of the smokestacks “were sickly or dying.” The Anaconda Copper was sued by farmers and the U.S. government. One result of their successful suit was Anaconda had to create a 585-feet stack. Tailings along the river had to be excavated and deposited elsewhere. Amazingly, today, trout are living in the creeks along the river.

Anaconda Copper created man-made ponds to manage the tailings, with artificial waterways to move the copper sulfate. These ponds actually have to be managed in perpetuity, as they remain one of the most contaminated areas. But, interestingly, around these ponds, a new golf course was put in, designed by Jack Nicklaus. Other areas have been restored as wildlife habitat. New educational signage also help visitors interpret the site. The positive changes in the Clark Fork River communities are worth exploring (read a great article on the environmental remediation effort in High Country News).

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From Military Sites to Wildlife Preserves

Many former military sites in America are being swiped clean and restored to earlier versions of themselves, natural areas. According to professor David Havlick, University of Colorado, there are nearly two dozens former Department of Defense sites across the U.S. that are now wildlife preserves, some 1.2 million acres.

Havlick called these places “unique hybrid landscapes” because they are “ecologically valuable but highly contaminated.” These sites are layered with multiple meanings: They reflect national sacrifice (they are often called “sacrifice zones”) but also the resiliency of nature. The restoration process itself also generates meaning, as a “previously restricted space now comes back into view.” As these sites are restored, they also show the possibility of “military stewardship,” and the military taking environmental responsibility.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is leading the restoration at many of these former military sites. Havlick said they take a “wildlife-first policy.” At the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, FWS is restoring the short grass prairie at a former chemical weapons facility that is heavily contaminated. The old bunkers are presented as amenities. Havlick said people are really drawn to these. At the old Arsenal site, wetlands are now bringing in waterfowl.

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Thousands of acres of prairie grass are now munched on by imported bison.

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A visitor’s center tells the “narrative about individual and community sacrifice.”

Another Perspective on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal

For philosophy professor Marion Hourdequin, Colorado College, the question is “what is the role of history?” She argued that “most traditional ecological restoration projects aren’t up to preserving diverse values.” Historical fidelity means restoring a site to its pre-settlement conditions, prior to colonization by Europeans. This means trying to undo the legacy of human interventions in the site before then. But Hourdequin thinks this isn’t even possible. The new model for ecological restoration accepts this, offering a “dynamic view of ecology, contingency, and global warming. We are now dealing with altered and fragmented landscapes.”

Hourdequin thinks sites up for ecological restoration should instead be treated as “complex, layered landscapes that don’t ignore the past or only restore to pre-settlement conditions. We need a middle way that integrates humans and nature.” She believes this is because “human values are intertwined with places.”

At the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, there is a rich history that goes beyond the “weapons to wildlife narrative.” Before Europeans arrived, the place was used seasonally by native Americans. The area was eventually homesteaded by European settlers. Later, in the 1940s, it became a primary site for American chemical weapons production, including VX, Sarin, and Napalm. Then, it was leased to Shell for pesticide production. In the early 90s, efforts began to clean-up and restore the site. The story today is bald eagles, owls, bison, prairie dogs living in what looks like a natural site.

Hourdequin says it’s important not to forget these many important layers of history. While a wildlife refuge today, the place actually holds multiple meanings. Just look at the comments from visitors, who call it “quiet and sad” and “peaceful and redemptive.”

Image credits: (1) Orford Ness / Wikipedia, (2) Orford Ness / copyright Gareth Harmer, (3) Orford Ness / Tomoland, (4) Geevor Tin Mine / My Daily, (5) Western Gas Factory / Outerhop, (6) Landscape Park Duisborg Nord / Landezine, (7) Berkeley Pit / Wired magazine, (8) Clark Fork River restoration / High Country News, (9) Rocky Mountain Arsenal / David Mendosa, (10) Bison / The Denver Post

Place-Making for Bees

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Bees aren’t all alike. The tens of thousands of different bee species around the world need different habitat to do well. Getting unique species to take root in restored habitat is a whole other story. In a session at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, ecologists discussed how challenging it is to create habitat bees will use year after year, particularly in restored landscapes.

Places for Bees in Agricultural Areas

Claire Carvell, who is a researcher at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, outlined how English bees have responded to habitat restoration projects. The situation for bees there is pretty dire. Some 75 percent of the UK is agricultural land. Some 97 percent of wildflower meadows, places bees love, are gone. As a result, “bees have significantly declined over the 20th century.”

The UK has more than 260 bee species, with some 26 species being social. There are 25 native bumblebees (2 have gone extinct). While there are still many types of bees, Carvell said bee diversity has decreased in more than half of the UK’s landscapes — by more than 50 percent since 1980.

To combat these trends, the UK government has initiated a program that pays subsidies for the “intensification of landscape quality.” Farmers must chose wildlife-friendly options to quality for those subsidies, which can total 280 pounds a year. One common outcome of this subsidy is natural strip of land left alone within farmland. There, a mix of agricultural plants and grasses bees like are added. Bumblebees take to agricultural legumes, while sunflowers are also good for bees.

In a recent project, Carvell said ecologists tested a few different options. In land where were there simply crops, there was no value for bees. In areas without pesticides, there was only a limited response. Where the “natural generation of plant communities” was allowed, there was also only a limited response. She said the key is creating sites with pollen and nectar, a diverse seed mix, which resulted in a “significant response” from the bees.

But one seed mix, no matter how diverse, will “not have sustained benefits.” There is a seasonal component; some plants die off. Flowering plants that offer nectar need to be re-sown every 3-4 years. Diverse plant mixes must include perennials.

Former Mining Sites Can Provide Habitat

Former mining sites litter the globe. Given all the untapped land, there are lots of opportunities to restore them as habitat for bees. But how good are these sites?, asked Karen Goodell, an ecology professor at Ohio State University.

The answer: reclaimed mines “can aid bee conservation,” but they will not be as good as remnant (untouched) habitat. It’s difficult to restore plant communities that existed in mining areas before. Forests can be re-created, but the full ecosystem is another story. While “floral diversity and abundance will positively affect bee recruitment,” bees will be less diverse in these mining sites than in remnant habitats.

In an observational study of 24 sites at The Wilds, a leading conservation site in Ohio, Goodell netted bee species, counted floral resources, and assessed nest habitat. She looked at sites that “vary in proximity to natural habitat.” A few experimental sites had “augmented nest sites;” another set only got “nest blocks” in the second year.

Looking specifically at Megachilid bees, which are more solitary than honey bees and nest on or in the ground, she found that “the abundance of floral resources wasn’t really important, restoring nesting substrate was far more critical.” Nesting “subtrate” includes stem wood and bare soil. She added that “adding additional artificial nest substrate didn’t help.” To that end, she said it’s important habitats, whether they are restored or not, have ample hollow stem wood lying around, shrubs, dead wood, and bare ground, if you want to attract Megachilids.

Challenges with Ecosystem Restoration

For Neal Williams, University of California – Davis, the transformation of wild areas into agricultural areas is the primary reason for bee habitat loss. Near the Sacramento River in California, a group of farmers and other interests are restoring an 80-kilometer swath along the river corridor from Red Bluff to Chico. Williams’ study there is looking at the community of pollinators in the restored fragments in comparison with the remnant riparian forests. His interest is what factors contribute to the “persistent differences” between the two areas.

Williams said the sites were actually restored. A mono-cultural landscape filled with Walnut orchards was turned back into a forest, but now there is no understory. The issue then was that “species richness was restored, but not composition.”

Lastly, Rufus Isaacs, Michigan State University, discussed bee habitat restoration in managed lands in Michigan. He said there’s a “great diversity of fruit and vegetable production in the area and farmers are very interested in the health of bees.” Hopefully, more will actually do something about setting aside land for bees, given so much of America’s farm produce relies on pollinators.

Image credits: Bee Habitat / Honeybee Conservancy

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. Continues to Shape American Cities

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Louisville, Kentucky, and Birmingham, Alabama, have ambitiously expanded upon their Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.-designed park systems in ways that both reinforce this great designer’s legacy and provide lessons for other communities. At the Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.: Inspirations for the 21st Century symposium held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Dan Jones, chairman and CEO, 21st Century Parks; Philip Morris, Hon. ASLA, former executive editor of Southern Living Magazine; and Eric Tamulonis, ASLA, principal, Wallace Roberts Todd (WRT), explained Olmsted Jr.’s continuing contribution to contemporary park systems and interconnected parkways. Working in the era of the “recreational reform park”, Olmsted Jr. helped to systematize a new approach to municipal park and recreation planning.

Building on his father’s 1893 system plan for Louisville, Olmsted Jr. provided a finer grain of public amenity by way of community and neighborhood parks, recreation grounds, and squares. Progressing to a more comprehensive, statistically-based approach to addressing municipal recreation needs, Olmsted Jr. also created a comprehensive system plan for Birmingham, addressing long-term regional growth and recreation needs by targeting a range of park opportunities well beyond the city. According to Tamulonis, Louisville had implemented Olmsted’s plan “almost in its entirety” and became known as the “city of parks,” whereas Birmingham, called the “River of Steel” for its industry, did not implement as much of its own plan.

Today, both cities are reinvesting in their downtowns. Louisville and Birmingham have “parks not necessarily in the center of the city, but on the periphery, which are in a sense generating their own climate, providing a new dimension.” There is now “green infrastructure in keeping with the Olmstedian tradition of using open space, in the public realm, to shape the future growth of communities.”

Jones described the Parklands of Floyds Fork, a public park system totaling nearly 4,000 acres across four parks in eastern and southern Louisville, a project WRT has been designing and creating for years.

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He outlined several principles central to Olmsted Jr. For instance, the urban world of the twenty-first century is “directly analogous” to the world faced by Olmsted in the twentieth century. Parks are “shaping city infrastructure, are equal to other infrastructure, and should be built in advance of growth.” Planning parks systematically is superior to individual park design.

Jones also noted that some critics view very high-quality design as the work of elites, but he disagreed strongly with this view, saying “both Olmsteds proved that great design matters.”

Morris outlined the development of Olmsted Jr.’s plan for Birmingham, and how the plan was republished in 2005 by the Birmingham Historical Society.

He described the city, with its 38 different municipalities, as “fragmented,” but noted that “regional connections can be created even without a central government.” For example, agreements were signed between municipalities, and many stakeholder meetings were held to develop a master plan for the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, a regional greenway and street-based trail system to connect communities across Jefferson County.

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According to Morris, the city was an example of “it’s never too late,” and that “these ideas can work even in adverse conditions.”

This guest post is by Karen Grajales, ASLA Public Relations Manager.

Image credits: (1) Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. / Newport Arboretum, (2) ASLA 2009 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Parklands of Floyds Fork / WRT, (3) ASLA 2012 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Red Mountain / Green Ribbon —  The Master Plan for Red Mountain Park / WRT. 

Teaching Ecological Restoration (Not Restoration Ecology)

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In a session at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, ecologist John Munro worried that SER is moving away from its focus on practical, on-the-ground, ecological restoration projects in favor of more passive, “academic research on restoration ecology.” Pointing to Temple University’s landscape architecture and horticulture program, which features the first ever-accredited concentration in ecological restoration, he said the focus must remain on “doing rather than studying.” His fear is that many restoration ecologists can no longer “see the forest for the statistics.”

The solution, according to Munro, is to boost ecological site design education in both landscape architecture and ecology degree programs. Landscape architects and restoration ecologists must understand “specifications, logistics, sequencing, planning. This can’t be handed to other professions.” A landscape architect in Philadelphia discussed the ecological issues landscape architects must increasingly know about. A landscape architect professor and graduates from the Temple program then discussed their innovative program and what they are doing with what they’ve learned.

Landscape Architects Need Ecological Know-How

According to Emily McCoy, ASLA, Andropogon, “landscape architects are finally beginning to take seriously the idea of measuring ecosystem function.” They are also beginning to “take the best scientific information and apply them to landscape design.” This is challenging because landscape architects are not trained in statistics so can’t truly understand landscape function. This means they need to work with restoration ecologists or environmental designers.

Andropogon, one of the most cutting-edge landscape architecture firms in terms of sustainable design, has actually created an “integrative research department” to help incorporate the latest research into their practice. “We are focused on collecting adaptive feedback. We want to apply the latest data on landscape performance.” The firm is doing this because they believe all the new research can support their mission of improving the “health, safety, and welfare of people.” Andropogon thinks “urban environments can positively contribute to our health.”

McCoy identified a number of research areas where Andropogon says they need help from restoration ecologists or landscape architects trained in ecology. They are soils and soil biology (here, they are interested in “how what’s under the ground affects what’s above the ground”); habitat (“how do we define this?”); native plants (“can they succeed on green roofs?”); climate change; urban heat islands; assisted migration; and plant provenance and ecotypes. They need this kind of research for their sustainable landscape projects, like the green roof for the new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., which features native plant communities and now attracts wildlife (see image above).

She also said the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®), a kind of “LEED for Landscapes,” will further boost demand for ecological research services among all landscape architects. “SITES asks what is the habitat value? How do you measure performance of plants and soils in man-made landscapes?” Right now, data on ecosystem services provided by urban landscapes is largely unavailable.

Learning How to Do Ecological Restoration

Mary Myers, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at Temple University, said Temple has the only accredited landscape architecture program with a concentration in ecological restoration. She defined landscape architecture as an “environmentally-focused profession whose mission is to promote environmental balance and human well-being through sustainable design.”

To get similar programs going in other landscape architecture departments, she advised academic program chairs to “build lateral support within and out universities, get other environmental design schools on campus involved, and bring in expert outside advisers.” At Temple, Myers brought in Andropogon Associates, BioHabitats, and Mark Focht, FASLA, first deputy commissioner, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.

To build the case for the new program, which she did as chair of the landscape architecture and horticulture department, she pointed to U.S. Labor and ASLA reports outlining booming job growth for landscape architecture and ecological restoration, along with a U.S. News and World Report article that said ecological restoration is a growing field.

Myer’s program applies ecosystem design. There are modules on woodlands and wetlands, with classes on technical engineering and ecosystem design spread throughout. The third year has a special “public lands module,” and a capstone project in the field. Myers made a point of emphasizing how important “graphic communication” was in the curriculum, too, which was accredited by LAAB in 2013.
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How Temple University Students Approach Ecological Restoration

A group of Temple University graduates as well as current students then discussed how they are approaching ecological restoration in their work and studies. Sara Street, Construction Specialties, Inc. (C/S), a Temple University landscape architecture and ecological restoration graduate, described C/S’s efforts in designing a sustainable corporate campus for their sales office in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Located on the west branch of the Susquehanna River, the corporate campus is an industrially-zoned site in a region with a long history of human habitation. The campus’s new design includes stormwater capture and reuse, a reintroduction of native plants (including a native vegetation propagation facility), and a new trail system. Street described how the project will serve as an educational facility for local school children, teaching them about ecological restoration.

Street stressed the need for a quantifiable, objective method for judging ecological restoration projects. C/S’s new campus will be highly monitored over time. As landscape architecture and ecological restoration projects become more intertwined, Street expressed optimism for the development of new standardized system of sustainability scorecards.

Patricia Kemper, Master of Landscape Architecture Candidate, Temple University, then discussed the integration of landscape architecture and ecological restoration. She cited several built examples, including the James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center in White Lake Township, Michigan. Completed in 2008, the project – a recipient of an ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award – involved a large-scale ecological restoration effort. MSI Design led a multidisciplinary team to accomplish this task, which required the reintroduction of 170 native plant species, the preservation of existing wetlands and woodlands, and a new ecologically-managed stormwater system. Furthermore, an underwater plexiglass classroom entices school children to learn about the aquatic ecology of the site. By merging landscape architecture and ecological restoration, the design of the James Clarkson Environmental Discover Center benefits both wildlife and the public.

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Kemper followed her case studies with the results of a survey of universities with master programs in landscape architecture. Respondents were asked questions regarding the role of ecological restoration education in their landscape architecture programs. She found that while landscape students are getting exposed to the concepts of ecological restoration, they are not typically being taught nuts and bolts of ecological restoration practice. More emphasis on ecological restoration in landscape architecture education is needed.

Sue Ann Alleger, who graduated with a Master’s of Landscape Architecture degree from Temple University, then reiterating the importance of dual training in landscape architecture and ecological restoration. Alleger outlined how pressures from widespread urbanization, population expansion, and climate change are disrupting environmental systems. In this context, she felt ecological restoration should play a part in any landscape design. She described how ecological restoration is coupled with design projects at Temple University, from inventory to analysis, concept, and final plan. For example, design projects can involve an extensive site inventory of quantitative and qualitative data, which is plotted and compared to a reference model.

According to Alleger, this kind of technical rigor extends to every stage of a design project at Temple University, integrating ecological science with design at all points. Whether or not Temple’s model of merging landscape architecture and ecological restoration becomes more widespread, further collaboration between these two disciplines will be increasingly important as ecological performance is demanded of our landscapes.

This post is by Jared Green, Editor, The Dirt, and Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters Green Roof / Rooflite (2) Andrew Hayes. Capstone Restoration Design Project / Temple University, (3) ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center. MSI Design / Image credit: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography

Novel Ecosystems: Not So Novel Anymore

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Few of the world’s ecosystems have been left untouched by humans. While we can restore many ecosystems damaged by people to their historic function, some may be beyond repair and have become “novel ecosystems.” According to experts at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, some 36 percent of the globe’s ecosystems are now novel, meaning that more are now novel than wild. Some goods news though: the maximum extent of novelty, around 50 percent, was reached around 100 years ago. The percentage of novel ecosystems has actually gone down with more intensive agricultural practices that take up less land.

Novel Ecosystems and Shifting Values

Ecologist Eric Higgs, University of Victoria, put novel systems in a broader context. Walking through Southern Vancouver Island, he has seen many invasive species from elsewhere, but has been puzzled about what to do. There’s a limited amount of energy for pulling out every invasive plant species, particularly in areas totally over-run. Even if plants are removed, “the system will revert back immediately” to a state of invasion. At the global level, land use and climate shifts, invasive plant invasions, nitrogen deposition, and cultural changes mean a constant struggle against novelty.

In a new book Higgs and others published, Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order, a model has been created to understand what kind of ecosystems we have today. There are “historical ecosystems,” which have had no change; “hybrid ecosystems,” which have “reversible changes;” and now “novel ecosystems,” where the changes are irreversible. Novel ecosystems are characterized by a “difference in ecosystem composition, structure, and function.” They have a “persistent self-organization,” even if they were created by humans. “They have a practical condition of irreversibility.”

Restoration ecologists mostly work in the area of hybrid ecosystems, trying to restore them to historical ones. While this work is important, Higgs argues that “we have to have flexible goals in some systems.” For example, he pointed to the typical “landscape mosaic” found in exurban or peri-urban areas. There, the landscape is often segmented into hybrid and novel systems. And there, restoration ecologists have to “restore and intervene responsibly.”

In the face of this overwhelming struggle against novelty, there has been a shift in values among society. Years ago, restoration ecologists wanted to restore ecosystems to their “historic fidelity” as much as possible. Now, ecologists, scientists, and landscape architects discuss the value of novel ecosystems’ services, which to some extent are plant-agnostic.

Perhaps reflecting the shift in values, Higgs said “ecosystem services can be achieved in different ecosystems,” meaning that novel systems, no matter how different they are from historic ones, still have some value. Still, Higgs cautioned against those who think novel ecosystems are somehow beneficial, and the way to go in the future. This view point has been promoted by a number of scientists, and articulated well by Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, and others in a recent New York Times op-ed. Higgs thinks this point of view is a bit dangerous, as the Anthropocene, the globe as managed by man, could raise problems with biological diversity. “We have to be careful.”

He said all the debate about novel ecosystems and ecosystem services may prove fruitful though. The old model of ecological restoration was “history as template, single trajectory, and an emphasis on structural composition.” The new model, which he deemed “ecological restoration 2.0,” calls for “history as a guide, multiple trajectories, processional emphasis, and pragmatic goals.” Expectations are diminishing on one hand, while “possibilities are enlarged” with novel systems. “Novel ecosystems can bolster restoration goals for systems in rapid change.”

Planet Now More Novel Than Wild

Mike Perring, University of Western Australia, seeks to quantify the extent of novel ecosystems across the globe. He said “novelty is not new,” so he’s trying to figure out the current and historical extent and how things have changed over time.

Perring and his team have used “proxies” such as land-use maps and population counts. Areas used by humans and close-by areas not used are basically novel. In addition, areas previously used but no longer used, areas where there was “population in the past,” will sometimes still be novel.

While there are different land-use models, Perring estimated that a vast amount of the globe has been converted for human use, meaning about 36 percent of the world’s ecosystems are novel. Excluding the ice-covered parts of the planet, this means that more of the planet is novel than wild.

According to the models Perring used, there has been lots of change over the past 250-500 years. “The wild has been going down over time.” But the good news may be the novel is going down, too. The maximum amount of novelty, around 50 percent, was hit around 100 years ago. Novelty has gone down as humans have cultivated land more intensively.

Perring wondered whether we have reached irreversible thresholds of novelty or not, as well. With ozone, carbon dioxide, and acidification levels changing with climate shifts, there are definite implications for ecosystems.

Novelty in the Era of Climate Change

According to Brian Starzomski, University of Victoria, all ecosystems, even novel ones, are rapidly changing with climate shifts. “You basically need to move 110 meters per year to follow your climate.” Climate shifts are expected to only accelerate, further exacerbating challenges related to novel ecosystem management.

Starzomski asked, “How do we adapt to and manage ecosystems that we have never experienced before?” Ecosystem restoration must also change as the climate does. As an example, he discussed the Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies, where leading-edge peripheral populations are losing their range due to climate change. Also, the Garry Oak ecosystems along the Pacific Northwest are experiencing “novel conditions” that challenge restoration paradigms. He said in Canada, nine national parks “no longer contain their original climate conditions.”

The Challenge of Measuring What’s New

Finally, ecologist Jim Harris discussed how difficult it is to measure novel ecosystems, given “no two ecosystems are identical.” He added that “finding the degradation symbol may not be obvious.” An ecosystem may appear fine on the surface, but the hydrological systems may be shutting down because of subtle shifts in groundwater, or the soil compositions may be changing. In addition, some systems are extremely challenging to pin down. “Some exhibit multiple stable states.”

To measure novel ecosystems, one must look at reference sites. But how many do scientists need to look at to be sure? Without enough examples, restoration ecologists can end up with “rigid prescriptions that produce fragile systems, or worse, landscape collapse.”

In dealing with novel ecosystems, landscape architects and restoration ecologists need a “big team,” with lots of data on species and human populations. Subtle surveys collecting lots of on-the-ground information are really critical. “We can’t just deal with simple approaches like numbers and arrangements. With ecosystem services, there is a lot to measure here.”

Image credits: Novel Ecosystem in Hawaii / Image credit: Emma Marris, ASLA Interview.

Working with the Changing Shore

Zandmotor vlucht-11 09-05-2011 foto: Rijkswaterstaat/Joop van Houdt
Sea levels are projected to rise dramatically over the next century, impacting coastal infrastructure that was never designed for these new conditions. In the face of this change, simply maintaining the status quo is an implausible prospect. At the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, a set of landscape architects and ecologists proposed ecological strategies for adapting to sea level rise. By harnessing previously ignored or repressed ecological systems, coastal settlements can more effectively respond to their changing landscapes.

Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, a landscape architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed strategies for beach restoration in the context of rising seas. Using Virginia Beach as a case study, she explored the potential of the Dutch zandmotor (or sand motor) method of beach restoration (see image above).

Virginia Beach claims to have the longest recreational beach in the world, and, therefore, an economic impetus to keep its beach in a static, predictable form, requiring periodic restoration work. Traditionally, beach restoration work, which was last completed in Virginia Beach in 2002, involves dumping large amounts of new sand on the shoreline and spreading it around with a bulldozer. This process is expensive and highly disruptive to beach ecology.

The zandmotor method involves harnessing wave action to distribute sand across the shoreline. Instead of applying sand directly to the beach with bulldozers, sand is dumped offshore. Over time, coastal currents move the sand and deposit it along the beach. This method is much cheaper and less disruptive than traditional beach restoration.

In order to be applied in Virginia Beach, however, cultural attitudes toward the beach must change. Hill stated that hotel owners are leery of the irregular beach arrangements that result from the Dutch method, desiring the predictability that is achieved through traditional methods. Still, Hill expressed hope that eventually people may embrace a changing beach as something “exciting and beautiful to check in to see every year.” [See more on the Dutch sand motor at Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM)]

Next, Shimrit Perkol-Finkel, SeArc – Ecological Marine Consulting LTD, spoke about retrofitting existing coastal infrastructure to support diverse marine ecosystems. Perkol-Finkel described how much existing construction consists of smooth concrete, a material that is not hospitable to marine growth. As an alternative to traditional concrete, she proposed the development of ecologically-active infrastructure that enhances ecological systems without compromising function. Enhanced biological buildup, including the proliferation of oysters and corals, can actually enhance the strength and durability of this infrastructure.

Speculating that concrete’s poor ecological performance has to do with its alkaline composition and smooth texture, Perkol-Finkel discussed a series of experiments with alternate concrete mixtures and arrangements. These experiments, which took place both in the lab and in the field, revealed that some concrete mixes perform significantly better ecologically than others. Furthermore, textured concretes proved to be far more conducive to marine life than smooth concretes. Slight modifications to the composition, texture, and design of marine infrastructure can lead to an enhanced ability to attract flora and fauna. This translates to an infrastructure that is biologically active, contributing to both ecological health and infrastructural function.

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Peter Hummel, Anchor QEA, discussed strategies for integrating ecological restoration and infrastructure in Puget Sound. Much of the degradation to Puget Sound’s ecosystems has come not only from encroaching development, but also from coastal infrastructure itself. Using examples from rural, suburban, and urban settings, he presented case studies where coastal infrastructure was reconnected to ecological systems, enhancing resiliency to sea level change.

Whidbey Island in Puget Sound was given as a rural case study. Historically, the 600-acre site consisted of tidal marshes and mudflats. Most of this was lost with the introduction of a dyke and pump station, as well as a state highway and navel base. Recognizing that the pump station is extremely expensive to maintain, the restoration plan involves the wholesale removal of the levee and the replacement of the state highway with a bridge. By removing everything that limits the site’s hydrology, these modifications allow natural processes to rebuilt marshland – a process-based restoration plan.

Similarly, restoration efforts in Seahurst Park, a suburban setting, involve the removal of hard infrastructure to allow natural processes to function. In this case, a series of bulkheads have prevented landslide material from reaching the park’s beach, piling up uselessly only to be eventually hauled away by trucks. As a consequence, the beach has lowered 3 – 4 feet over 30 years. The restoration plan for the site involves the removal of these bulkheads, allowing landslide debris to reach the beach and rebuilt it over time.

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In all of these examples, ecological processes are integrated into traditionally hard coastal infrastructures, benefiting both marine ecosystems and infrastructure. As sea levels rise, finding creative ways of harnessing ecological processes will be critical to coastal resiliency.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Dutch Zandmoter / Vlugtenberg (2) Shimrit Perkol-Finkel’s youtube channel, (3) Seahurst Park / Daily Journal of Commerce

The Rich Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

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Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN Studio and recent recipient of the National Medal of Arts, gave the keynote speech at the symposium, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.: Inspirations for the 21st Century, held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Presented by the National Association for Olmsted Parks (NAOP) and its partners, including the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the symposium was the first of two parts that, together, will be the most comprehensive presentation to date of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.’s amazing legacy.

Olin’s point of view is a “practitioner’s” but also “someone trying to teach people to become landscape architects,” referring to his work as practice professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and former chair of the department of landscape architecture at Harvard University. In his talk, Olin didn’t take the bird’s-eye view of the younger Olmsted’s legacy, but provided a more detailed narrative about his formative years and the interests and forces that gathered in his work and thought.

The overview began with the father, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., who was “justly credited” with “initiating the field of landscape architecture.” The son, Olmsted Jr., “continued this activity” as it was “conceived and formed by his father” through the work of the family firm that he inherited with his older half brother, John Charles Olmsted.

Omsted Jr. was “in large part truly responsible for the “development and recognition of landscape architecture as a profession” and was a “progressive reformer” at heart. He also was responsible for the “rapid evolution” of the study of landscape architecture and was a “central figure in the initiation and development” of the field of urban planning, the National Park Service, and ASLA.

Olin discussed current jousting in academia around landscape urbanism, concluding that the breadth of Olmsted’s vision remains both pertinent and much in play in the field today. Landscape architects must contend with the “transformation and rescue of declining areas” and “restructuring hastily-constructed sections of cities.”

Hurricane Sandy’s effect on coastal cities is also a “clear landscape design problem, exactly the sort of work Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. would be doing today.”

Ultimately, according to Olin, “we’re all forging ahead, trying to improve both practice and academia.”

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.: A Vision for the American West, will take place March 27-28, 2014 at Stanford University. This second event will expand the D.C. discussion to incorporate issues specific to the American West, including land and water conservation, state and regional parks systems, and protecting the region’s unique environmental resources.

This guest post is by Karen Grajales, ASLA Public Relations Manager.

Image credit: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. / National Association for Olmsted Parks

Lovefest: Landscape Architects and Restoration Ecologists

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Landscape architecture and ecological restoration are really different disciplines, but increasingly these fields are working together in fascinating ways. In a session at the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) conference in Madison, Wisconsin, Rutgers ecologist Steven Handel organized a group of landscape architects and restoration ecologists to discuss why collaboration is vital. In a mutual lovefest, the ecologists explained how landscape architects are important to work with because they communicate well with clients and communities. The landscape architects argued that ecologists are critical to making the new wildlife habitats that form sustainable landscapes actually work and measuring their success over time.

Fernbank Museum of Natural History Forest

Christina Kaunzinger, an ecologist at Rutgers University who has worked on the Piedmont forest restoration at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta (see image above), said when restoring a landscape, ecologists can look at habitats and see what’s possible, what interventions are needed, and what natural ecological methods can be used. They also create “environmental education plans.”

Within those same landscapes, landscape architects design access that “integrates people with these places” and create approaches that “sustainably manage resources.” She added that the role landscape architects play in client and broader community engagement was “very important.” Landscape architects also often play the general contracting role, managing the process, and serving as legal authority, dealing with permits. She said it’s clear that “enhanced success comes from collaboration.”

At the Fernbank Forest, which is a remnant oak, hickory, and pine forest long-protected from agriculture and development, landscape architects and ecologists are now restoring the landscape while improving access for educational purposes. Kaunzinger said the forest is actually in pretty good shape given there are no “soil disturbances.” There’s a lot of decaying wood, which is great for biodiversity. The stream heads are intact. There’s a protective fence and bikes are not permitted. The primary issue is the forest, which is near a county school district, is plagued by invasive plants from nearby residential areas.

The goal of the design and ecological restoration efforts are to “restore, protect, and preserve the forest and campus, while enhancing ecosystem services, connecting the campus to the forest physically and programatically.” The team is working in some nice elements: bioswales on the campus, an elevated walkway into the forest along with a new forest boardwalk to protect the existing ecosystem, as well as an improved stream corridor. Ponds will have softer, greener edges to improve access. Where possible, all those invasives will be taken out.

Landscape architect Susan Stainback, ASLA, Sylvatica Studio, then further explained the design rationale, arguing that “people have to have access to nature to care.” She asked “why should people care about this forest?” The answer is because this is an “ancient forest.” The design is meant to highlight the site’s wonderful ecology, “educating people about successional stages.” This educational campaign will be used to get residences around the forest to change their landscape practices. “Landscaping with Ivy and Privet is a big problem.”

Peachtree Creek Restoration Greenway

Another project Stainback is working on in Atlanta is the Peachtree Creek Restoration Greenway, a massive project involving landscape architects, ecologists, and other scientists that aims to help Atlanta rediscover this 30-mile-long creek. Stainback said the project is about “re-balancing natural systems and urban revitalization.” Most people only see glimpses of the creek and then see it as a “dangerous, neglected place overrun with invasive plants.” In fact, it’s a “beatiful riparian system” hidden in plain sight.

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Working with Perkins + Will, Stainback and others are creating a framework plan that will restore the creek and then connect it to surrounding neighborhoods through a system of trails. One segment, between Emory University and Buckhead, will be the first to go live. She said in just this segment, a “huge number of organization is involved,” as the goal is to “weave together social, natural, and cultural assets currently disconnected.” She said the role of the landscape architects in this is to create a “implementable master plan.” As such, she’s working on “orchestrating  input among all the stakeholders. We have to synthesize the ideas of many.”

The creek itself provided paths used by Native Americans for hundreds of years. To prove this, Stainback showed a set of beautiful artifacts from this important cultural landscape. Later, she said, European settlers copied the Native Americans and overlaid railroads on many of these old trails. Today, the creek itself is largely intact, with the flood plain soils in place. But the “lowlands” need to be further protected, and stormwater runoff is affecting the creek so new green infrastructure systems need to be put in.

The restoration project has a few key goals. One is that nature takes precedence over the built environment. Another is to establish the creek corridor as a place for people to truly immerse themselves in nature. Trails will be designed to “maximize the aesthetics of walking in a native urban oasis.” Trail crossings will lie lightly on the land, with bridge and boardwalks. Around the restored creek corridor low-cost green infrastructure will be added to keep runoff from impacting water quality. Lastly, way-finding and educational signage will help bring people in, explaining how these kind of trails improve the health of communities.

Randall’s Island Living Shore

New York City is experimenting with novel approaches to make its coastal landscapes more resilient to climate change. Marcha Johnson, ASLA, who works on ecological restoration and landscape architecture projects with the NYC Parks department, discussed a fascinating coastal restoration experiment that also aims to show the benefits of collaboration between disciplines. “It’s about stepping outside the boundaries and coming up with new creative ways of problem solving.”

Johnson made some observations about the “nature of collaboration.” She said studies of chimpanzees give us some insights into human cooperation, namely that collaboration best happens when there is a “novel or complex problem with no standard, pre-existing solution” and there’s an “urgent need to find a solution.” She said how to create climate-resilient landscape in NYC is just one such problem.

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NYC is planning for 31-inch rise in its sea levels over the next 40 years. Given such massive changes in the environment are coming, innovative thinking is clearly needed. To get to those new ideas, Johnson assembled a diverse team — a coastal geologist, physical oceanographer, geomorphologist, engineer, environmental artist, and planner — to brainstorm together. In a short-term experiment, she challenged representatives from each discipline to “share responsibilities and credit.” The group was invited to a design charrette, which most of the scientists had never experienced. As a result, she said, it actually didn’t work all that well. “It didn’t work to all sit in a room. We had to explore the reality of the site together. There, spontaneous, golden moments of cooperation came out of responding to the world. Light bulbs went off.”

In one part of Randall’s Island, the hard edge, the sea-wall of stone that circles the island was crumbling. Storms have over-topped it too many times. The team found that a new, soft-edged natural shore-line was needed to respond to rising sea levels without collapsing. The prototype landscape they created couldn’t just work for scientists though, it also had to communicate the changing relationship with nature to the public. “How can we deal with sea level rise in a non-threatening way?” The idea was to explore city-friendly “natural flooding” but in a place where there was no critical infrastructure nearby, and then apply the model elsewhere.

The design team came up with a new concept, at least for NYC — man-made “cusp beaches.” A “sacrificial berm” was built inland that will be “deliberately allowed to erode.” The berm will feed the beach in the winter, allowing for a “seasonal exchange of sediment.” A set of terraces was also created, reusing the old sea wall stones. Diverse coastal plantings were set within the terraced levels. As sea levels rise, plants will “inwardly migrate.” Johnson said there will be fixed 5- and 7-feet marks set within the landscape so the NYC parks department can actually track movement of the water.

Johnson said this experiment showed that “landscape architects are very well-endowed to organize collaborative teams,” but other disciplines clearly bring a lot of knowledge and expertise landscape architects just don’t have. Thanks to the chimpanzees for evolving collaborative behavior and getting us to this point.

Water Works Park

Another fascinating project shows what happens when landscape architects and ecologists collaborate on a master plan. In this case, both disciplines worked together to create one of the most innovative new plans we’ve seen in a while, for a revamped Water Works Park in Des Moines. Kim Chapman, an ecologist with Applied Ecological Services, and Mike Bell, ASLA, a landscape architect with RDG Planning & Design, explained how water will be used to restore an ecological system and update a park. New ponds are being created, connecting them in a “circuit” for recreation. This will help reduce nitrogen in the water. The landscape around the ponds will be restored. Both of their firms are working with lead design firm Sasaki Associates, which won an international design competition for the master planning project. Their collective goal is to “embed local ecology in the community through planning and landscape architecture.” The project will eventually cost more than $25 million.

The Raccoon River that runs through this part of Iowa is heavily polluted. Excess nitrogen comes off miles and miles of farmland, and then moves into the 1,500-acre Water Works Park. Chapman asked, “How can we address the problem of nitrogen?” A filter is expensive. The park is under-utilized. Why not put the water and landscape to use?

The new ponds will help reduce nitrogen load. “The park will have low-nitrogen water.” The plan also reduces habitat fragmentation in the natural landscape of the park, while creating an “engineered landscape” for recreation — with the added benefit of strengthening the existing freshwater conveyance system under the existing ponds. Underneath the ponds is a “gallery,” a pipe 20 feet below the aquifer, a sort of “horizontal well” miles long. When it was first built in the 1800s, the gallery was made of wood. Now, an enlarged one made of concrete is being further extended under newly-built ponds. Chapman said the “volume of water in the gallery will be increased due to the pressure from the additional water,” an added benefit.

galleryBell said Water Works Park really is saving the community money. “It’s an ecological system so we don’t have to turn on the largest nitrate removal system in the world, which is in Des Moines.” This multi-functional engineered park, with its man-made ponds, will also feature spots for tents, fishing, scenic picnic areas, and canoe launches.

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Complimenting Chapman, Bell said ecologists are critical to conducting research and tracking the value of a project overtime. For Chapman, Bell and the Sasaki Associates landscape architects are experts at community engagement and “graphic communication,” which is too often “left out of ecological discussions.” Landscape architects help “clarify the messages” and their participation “always results in better projects.”

Image credits: (1) Fernbank Forest / Wanderlust Atlanta, (2) Peachtree Creek / City-data.com, (3) Randall’s Island / NY Daily News, (4-6) Water Works Park plans / Sasaki Associates