Lovefest: Landscape Architects and Restoration Ecologists

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.

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.

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.


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 /, (3) Randall’s Island / NY Daily News, (4-6) Water Works Park plans / Sasaki Associates

6 thoughts on “Lovefest: Landscape Architects and Restoration Ecologists

  1. Terry Mock 10/15/2013 / 10:22 am

    Thanks for this good article on “…why collaboration is vital.”

    Precisely what is needed is a holistic watershed policy, across jurisdictional boundaries, that governs how stormwater will be handled and what measures can be done to “do more good” through application of new development policies and retrofitting (retro planting) existing urban areas.

    Sustainable land Development Initiative
    Returning to the Natural Stormwater Management Approach

  2. Suppak+ 10/16/2013 / 10:28 pm

    Thank you for a fascinating article. This article inspires me to work harder as a landscape architect!

  3. TreeLove 10/21/2013 / 10:59 pm

    same as Suppak, highly motivating article, thanks.

  4. J. David Utterback 02/20/2014 / 1:01 pm

    Great thought-provoking projects and collaboration for ecologically correct and naturally evolving landscapes. I have learned, being here on the Myrtle Beach, SC, coast for thirty years, that Mother Nature will take back what is screwed up by humankind. Engineers are mostly responsible as know-it-alls and never failing “professionals.” People love the country, the smell of spring, newly plowed ground, natural fragrances on the breeze, and the rotting must of leaves and logs, “How sweet it is.”

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