Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 1– 15)

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Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston / Jon Shapley, The Houston Chronicle

Saving Water Is So Hot Right Now in Landscape DesignWired, 3/4/16
“The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) asks hundreds of landscape architects around the U.S. to forecast the trends in outdoor design for the coming year. The point of the survey is to look beyond industry insider buzz and figure out what designers’ clients are actually asking for. This year’s results are in, and they show people are overwhelmingly concerned with water conservation.”

The Great Wall of Japan Divides a Country Still Reeling from 2011’s EarthquakeLakes Mail, 3/5/16
“Within months, plans to build super seawalls of up to 17m in height along more than 400km of the coastline of the worst-hit Fukishima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures at a cost of $US10 billion were approved. The eventual aim is to stretch Japan’s seashore fortifications from a pre-existing 9,500km to cover 14,000km of its entire 35,000km coastline.”

A New Future Post-Chargers? The San Diego Union-Tribune, 3/6/16
“Ever since the stadium opened in 1967, urban planners, politicians, Mission Valley residents and developers have eyed the site as an opportunity waiting to happen — to turn a centrally located, underutilized plot of city-owned land into something more than just an 18,500-space parking lot and occasionally used stadium.

Are We Greening Our Cities, or Just Greenwashing Them? – The Los Angeles Times, 3/6/16
“Architecture and urban design are in the throes of a green fever dream: Everywhere you look there are plans for ‘sustainable’ buildings, futuristic eco-cities, even vertical aquaponic farms in the sky, each promising to redeem the ecologically sinful modern city and bring its inhabitants back into harmony with nature.”

Houston Stakes a Claim as The Nation’s Emerald City The Houston Chronicle, 3/9/16
“At a time when many cities are turning once-blighted infrastructure into iconic public spaces, Houston has emerged as a surprisingly fertile pasture – such a model green city that more than 1,300 landscape planners from across America will visit for a closer look this weekend.”

How Urban Parks Are Bringing Nature Close to Home National Geographic, April Issue
“Reclaimed wastelands, centuries-old green spaces, and creative waterways offer quick escapes.”

Interview with Daniel Tal on the New Tech Landscape

Daniel Tal, ASLA
Daniel Tal, ASLA

Daniel Tal, ASLA, is a registered landscape architect with over 17 years of experience and a 3D modeling and visualization expert. He has authored two books: SketchUp for Site Design and Rendering in SketchUp. Tal runs a 3D modeling, visualization, and BIM studio for Stanley Consultants, a 1,000 person multi-disciplinary engineering firm and is the tech-editor at large for Landscape Architecture Magazine.

A few decades ago landscape architects weren’t working with complex software. Now that many software choices are available to landscape architects, how do these new technologies change what landscape architects do? What functions are now solely done through technology?

It has completely changed the way the profession functions. The expectation now is anyone out of school has to have some level of proficiency with AutoCAD, Photoshop and SketchUp, at a minimum. Knowing Rhino, 3Ds Max, GIS, and others is expected by some firms. It has become necessary to have some understanding of 3D modeling. This is even true for the landscape design industry.

Also, the workflow has changed. The nature of deadlines has changed because we’re so dependent now on technology. The ability for us to assess design and create revisions to design is remarkable. And among clients, expectations for how much we can change and incorporate have increased, whether it’s from a client overseas or a municipality in the United States.

And, of course, there’s the push for BIM, whatever that really means. I would encourage people to read the recent Building Information Modeling (BIM) for Dummies, which clearly explains the challenges landscape architects face in implementing BIM.

Are clients driving the use of these new technologies or landscape architects? Where is the demand for these new technologies coming from?

As consultants, our approach is client driven. The owners of offices recognize the benefit of being more competitive by having specialties in different software. And the expectation is landscape architects have to do it in a shorter amount of time.

Since the Great Recession, project budgets have gotten tighter and more competitive. Every edge matters. Keeping current matters. This means landscape architects will need to explore new technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones), 3D printing and fabrication, in-house programming. Soon enough, clients will expect these skills.

How do new technologies support the development of sustainable landscapes? Do they ease the process of design and implementation?

In some cases they do. Environmental assessment or modeling companies are starting to consult with urban design companies, landscape architects, architects, or they have an energy modeler in-house.

Something like Revit and other BIM applications help an energy modeler understand the levels of impact a building or structure might have on a landscape. And we’re seeing and pushing new technologies which measure flows and water for sustainability.

You’ve authored a few books on SketchUp. What do you see as the principal benefits and drawbacks of SketchUp?

SketchUp has become a somewhat standard tool for many offices. It’s expected as part of most professionals toolkits. I know of firms who test SketchUp skills during interviews. It’s proven to allow for quick site modeling and renders. This technology enables the ability to spread the work load among production staff like other typical software like AutoCAD and Adobe products. As a design and assessment tool, it’s invaluable. It’s also pretty easy to learn and fast so it’s well suited for typical landscape architecture firm budgets.

Google SketchUp Rendering / Daniel Tal
Google SketchUp Rendering / Daniel Tal

But I also fear SketchUp is falling behind. Don’t get me wrong, it enjoys widespread adoption in the landscape architecture industry and others and it will be around for years to come. But there is a need to incorporate more powerful tools that are becoming standard in other 3D modeling applications, like the ability to import LiDar and laser scans, automated modeling, and the inclusion of GIS and similar data. For example, there is UNDET, which allows for the import of LiDar data into SketchUp. What an amazing tool! But the price is prohibitive at $3,000 vs. something like AutoDESK Recap 360, which is free.

SketchUp’s development philosophy is to let the user and developer community create these tools. This has been great, as there are many amazing SketchUp Extensions, but also challenging, as more robust tools should require the SketchUp teams direct development. We’ll see what happens. For right now SketchUp is here to stay, but my hope is we see the genuine inclusion of new, powerful tools.

SketchUp and other technologies enabled you to design at large scale. What is the relationship between these new technologies and various design philosophies? Are technologists drawn to certain design and urban planning philosophies?

That’s a very good question because there’s been a dialogue that perhaps we’re too quick to go create something visually in 3-D, or in some other program, without actually going in and assessing the design aspect or the real-world impact.

There is a bit of a lag because the excitement has been that “we can convey anything,” but at the same time, we need to make sure what we’re conveying is responsible and correct for community and resource management.

More important, 3D modeling has opened the door for more accurate and powerful simulations and site analysis without having to be at the location. This is an aspect of BIM used often for buildings, structures, and power plants. But now we are now able to simulate traffic patterns for complete streets and pedestrian movement, weather, fluid dynamics, and plant growth.

Furthermore, as more powerful computers become available, and the smart algorithms that come with artificial intelligence and drones become prevalent, we will see another shift in how we work with the landscape. It will inspire new ways to think and design.

Google SketchUp rendering / Daniel Tal
Google SketchUp rendering / Daniel Tal

Open source software is getting better at meeting the needs of design professionals. Can you discuss some of the pros and cons with these?

One example is Unreal Engine, which is free even for commercial use. It is a gaming engine now available for landscape architects and others to use for their work. As important, it works with the Oculus Rift VR glasses. Really powerful stuff but it does have a learning curve. Many tutorials are available online.

Having free, open source software is important, obviously. For me, there’s the spirit of just having something available that’s free for everyone. We’re finding people go out and explore these things by themselves. They don’t have to have a budget of several thousand dollars to buy software. They’re picking up new skills to better represent their ideas. And we’re actually seeing that more and more. Within our office, there are different people trying out different software, coming to the table in a forum and saying, “This is what I got, and by the way, it’s free, and this is how you use it.”

What are some basic practical steps every landscape architect can take to better incorporate technology into their design and implementation process?

People need to make sure they’re familiar with what’s out there, and at least have a basic understanding of how they’re affecting the profession and who is using them. Hiring IT experts familiar with the landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering fields can help. For example, John Hanson in Denver, Colorado, does IT for several firms. He consults and builds high powered but affordable computer systems, using VR and experiments with 3D printing. Similarly, some students coming out of school can offer guidance.

There is so much new technology it’s hard to keep up with. It used to be that you just had to know your lessons about how things come together in construction and how people design. Every office now needs somebody that’s technologically savvy and knows how computers and hardware work, what programs are out there, and even how to program custom code for existing programs. It’s about making sure you’ve got the edge.

What do these programs mean for hand drawing skills?

I did a survey with Rodney Benton, a student from Auburn University, in 2014 that found hand-drawing skills are very much alive and in use, with 70 percent of firms saying it was still part of their practice and something they looked for from perspective employees. Similar findings have come out of industry surveys.

Knowing how to design, create specifications, administer construction, and manage projects are still the keys to success. 3D is just another tool in the bucket of landscape architects.

Dueling Visions for Pershing Park

Pershing Park, Washington, DC / Photograph © Brian K. Thomson, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Pershing Park, Washington, DC / Photograph © Volkmar Wentzel, undated, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission
Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission

Depending on your perspective, Pershing Park, which stands on a central spot on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. is either a unique, Modern landscape that deserves to be protected under the National Register of Historic Places, or an outdated, unwelcoming park that fails to meet the needs of its visitors and needs to be redesigned. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) sees Pershing Park, which was completed in 1981 but has since fallen into a state of disrepair, as worthy of rehabilitation. Designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, with a subsequent planting design by Oehme, van Sweden, it was once a striking urban park and it houses a protected memorial to WWI General John Pershing. But the leaders of the World War I Memorial Centennial Commission, which was created under an Act of Congress, would like to see a new design for the site — the winner of its national design competition: The Weight of Sacrifice by Joseph Weishaar, a 25-year-old architect, landscape architect Phoebe McCormick Lickwar, ASLA, and sculptor Sabin Howard. Their more traditional design aims to improve access and use bas-relief on 10-foot-high walls to tell a rich story of World War I. The commission has raised about $6 million so far for an effort they say will cost $38 million. Meanwhile, all parties are awaiting word from the National Park Service, which should decide shortly on whether the park will be included in the National Register of Historic Places. If it is, the commission’s ability to alter Friedberg’s design will be greatly circumscribed.

In a briefing at the National Press Club, WWI Memorial Centennial Commission vice chair Edwin Fountain said the style of the park should be “recognizable to the veterans of the war. It should appear timeless.” But he added that the new park, if it moves forward, will not be a “living memorial” for veterans, as the last WWI veteran died 5 years ago. Instead, it will be a commemorative, educational place that allows both children of veterans to grieve and visitors to learn about the war.

Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission
Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission

Architect Joe Weishaar added the site should also be a great place to have lunch and work as a neighborhood park, which he conceded it does well enough now. But he said the park’s sunken center is a “blind spot” and he wants to raise that up and turn it into a lawn, giving people more green space (see image at top). The sculptures, which will run across a 10-foot-high expanse, would be a tactile, sensory experience. Sculptor Sabin Howard envisions bas-relief in three segments that deal with the time prior to the war, during the war, and then the aftermath. He wants to create an “uplifting story of transformation, showing how noble the human race can be.” He wants visitors to have a “visceral response to the emotional aspects of the war,” but to leave with the idea that “there is sense of unity in the universe.” Weishaar and Howard also want the sculpture’s movements through periods of chaos to order to be reflected in a new planting design.

Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission
Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission

While Fountain, Weishaar, and Howard imagine a new design for the site, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president and CEO of TCLF, Darwina Neal, FASLA, former president of ASLA, and others, want to see a protected and rehabilitated Pershing Park, which has deteriorated due to decades of lapsed maintenance. The fountain, which used to a great draw, is now defunct. It used to become an ice-skating rink in winter, but the underlying infrastructure that made that happen has been moribund for years.

Pershing Park, Washington, DC / Photograph © Brian K. Thomson, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Pershing Park, Washington, DC / Photograph © Brian K. Thomson, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Cracked, uneven pavers are now one of the defining features on the ground. And lots of the trees aren’t in good shape either. But Birnbaum and others argue it could once again become the draw it clearly once was if it was rehabilitated, which would involve “making some changes, but keeping the signature and character-defining features intact.”

Pershing Park / TCLF
Pershing Park / TCLF

In a recent release, Birnbaum said the commission knew the park may end up on the National Register of Historic Places, but they decided to go ahead with their own designs anyhow. “They opted for conflict over collaboration.”

When asked to share his most recent thoughts after the National Press Club briefing, Birnbaum elaborated: “A critical failing of the WWI Memorial design process has been a lack of collaboration by WWI Commission, which has created a severe threat to an important work by M. Paul Friedberg, the most recent recipient of the ASLA Medal. WWI Commission vice-chair Edwin Fountain stated at the March 2, 2016 National Press Club event that he and the commission are ‘in conversations’ with TCLF, which suggests there’s an ongoing dialogue – that is simply not true. In fact, in my only substantive conversation with Mr. Fountain – a telephone call after the competition was first announced – it was clear that Mr. Fountain had no interest in anything we had to say about how a sympathetic rehabilitation of this significant Friedberg design, which we believe will be determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, could also satisfy the aims and objectives of the commission.”

More collaboration among all parties will be needed after the National Park Service announces its decision. And Fountain partly acknowledged this, saying that a public regulatory process is underway, and any changes to the park need to be approved by the Commission on Fine Arts, National Capital Planning Commission, and, finally, the National Park Service, which manages the park. Whatever the outcome, one long-term question is: can this park be well-maintained moving forward? If not, we may be back to where we are now 30 years in the future.

D.C. Plans for Preservation Amid Population Explosion

O Street Market, before redevelopment / Wikipedia
O Street Market, before / Wikipedia, Farragutful, CC BY-SA 3.0
O Street Market, rendering of post-redevelopment / City Market at O
O Street Market, after / City Market at O

How does a historic, monumental city with a defined border and building-height limit accommodate the influx of another 150,000 people over the next two decades? For District Mayor Muriel Bowser and planning director Erik Shaw, who spoke at an event at the Howard Theater, a major part of the answer is adaptive reuse, which involves transforming a building or site into some new use it wasn’t originally designed for. This approach enables cities to preserve some of the original character and feel of a place while updating it for contemporary realities.

Washington, D.C. has gained in population since 2000, when it hit a low-point of 572,000. The city now has 658,000 residents. Since 2000, there has been 150 million square feet of new development, much of it in the city’s 46 historic districts, to accommodate all the new residents, up to 1,000 people per month. Shaw said city planners have largely “maintained the integrity of the place, but it has been a balancing act.” And this balancing act will only get more difficult as the population is expected to increase a further 20 percent.

Mayor Bowser said D.C. needs to plan decades ahead for the expected population explosion. She admitted there will be big changes — “nothing stays the same.” Increased development may mean more “pressure,” particularly for low-density areas now being retrofitted to become higher density. Higher density development and less parking means greater strain on already over-taxed public transportation systems. But to create a new balance, Bowser’s administration is undertaking a comprehensive plan that will build on “examples from the past that were respectful of our values.”

One example from today, which was highlighted by a panel that followed Bowser and Shaw, is the new O Street Market, an adaptive reuse project in the Shaw neighborhood of D.C. O Street Market, a charismatic Victorian building, opened in 1881, with ample light, ventilation, and easy-to-clean sanitary surfaces. In 1968, the market closed amid the riots that roiled the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the early 1970s, it was restored and reopened as a market for vendors, with a Giant supermarket coming in next door. In 1993, the market was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but by then, it had already become a symbol of the city’s “urban decay and dysfunction,” as eight people were shot in and around the building in one particularly bloody incident, writes The Washington Post. Vendors fled the marketplace amid rampant drug violence.

In 2001, a few developers made a bet the neighborhood would come back and decided to make an investment in the then-decrepit building. Roadside Development, along with Madison Retail Group, purchased the building, but, just a few years later, the old market’s roof collapsed in a snow storm. Richard Lake, Roadside Development, said the setbacks didn’t stop them, as the “community had a clear vision of what they wanted.” However, it still took more than 7 years before the D.C. Zoning Commission, Historic Preservation Review Board, and planning department approved the $325 million expansion of the market into the City Market at O, a multi-use development.

What was once a empty building with a collapsed roof was reopened as the largest Giant supermarket in the district in 2013. According to Keith Sellars, president, Washington DC Economic Partnership, this is a major success story. “10-15 years ago, we had to beg Giant to come to the core of D.C. But now they want a historic, authentic building for their 78,000-square foot flagship.”

Within City Market at O, there’s a 90-unit senior housing building that was filled up within weeks of opening and already has a multi-year wait list, along with a 555-unit market price apartment complex, with 550-square-foot one-bedrooms that go for a whopping $2,700. There’s a 182-unit hotel run by Cambria Suites. And another affordable housing building is in the works, with an additional 142 units opening in 2017. Just last year, the entire development won the Urban Land Institute’s global award for excellence competition.

Architect Shalom Baranes, who created 50-60 different architectural models of the revitalized O Street Market over the years before it was approved, said the developers and architects “brought their best game to a culturally-rich neighborhood.” The new Giant in the shell of the Victorian building well “juxtaposes modern and traditional.”

Meanwhile, housing prices just keep going up in gentrifying Shaw, which was 25 percent white in 2000 and is now more than half white. Mayor Bowser’s vision is of a “world-class, inclusive city,” and, in Shaw, she told The Washington Post, “it’s not too late for this to be a neighborhood where low-income and expensive housing exist side-by-side over the long term.” Her administration is investing $100 million in an expanded affordable housing trust fund, which helps tenants purchase their older, rent-stabilized apartments before they are sold and redeveloped. But as can be seen in the multi-year waiting list for the 99-unit senior housing built at City Market at O and so many other subsidized housing services, demand far exceeds supply. For a share of the city’s population, inclusion only happens with more affordable housing. Without inclusion, there will be no rich cultural heritage to preserve alongside the adapted old buildings.

SITES Offers ASLA Members Early Adopter Discount for Certification

SITES / GBCI
SITES / GBCI

Traditional land development and land-use decisions often underestimate or ignore healthy ecosystems. Sustainable land development is cost-effective, better for the environment and fosters resiliency. Last year, GBCI expanded on its vision of speed to market transformation for the built environment to cover nearly every facet of sustainability, including sustainable landscape design and management. GBCI now administers the Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®), the most comprehensive program for designing sustainable landscapes. To recognize those who have made significant contributions to sustainable landscape design, GBCI is excited to announce new pricing that rewards the early adopters. From March 1 to May 31, GBCI is offering a $1,500 reduction in paid registration and registration/certification bundle fees.

SITES-certified projects provide ecosystem services and create ecologically resilient communities, help reduce water demand, filter and reduce stormwater runoff, involve no or limited pesticide use, conserve or restore natural resources, and provide wildlife habitat. They also offset development impacts, reduce energy consumption, help sequester carbon, improve air quality and human health, and provide essential benefits that humans and other organisms depend on for survival.

In June 2015, GBCI launched project certification for v2 of SITES. Already, SITES v2 has seen projects registering across the world, from New York to Los Angeles, from Vancouver to Hong Kong. SITES certification is available for development projects located on sites with or without buildings, ranging from national parks to corporate campuses, from streetscapes to gardens. SITES is being used by landscape architects, designers, engineers, architects, developers, policy makers, and others to align land development and management with innovative sustainable design.

Take advantage of this special pricing opportunity by registering your project today with SITES.

Just as LEED undeniably transformed the built environment, SITES has the ability to transform land development and use under the administration of GBCI. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) is produced by the Green Business Certification Inc., which owns exclusive rights to the SITES rating system, its publications, and its trademarks. The material on which the SITES rating system is based was developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.

Can the U.S. Achieve Its Climate Goals?

Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research
Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research

With the U.S. Supreme Court stay of President Obama’s clean power plan, there are concerns the U.S. will miss its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 26-28 percent by 2025. The U.S. made this commitment in advance of the UN Climate Summit in Paris last year. The commitment was viewed as critical to getting China and the rest of the world on board with significant GHGs cuts. In early February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s new rules that will force states to come up with a plan to reduce GHGs from electric power plants by 2020 until it can hear from the 29 states and multiple corporations that sued to stop the rules. Some 18 states, mostly led by Democrats, have decided to move forward, regardless of how the Supreme Court decides.

In an event organized by New America and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, D.C., John Larsen, director at the Rhodium Group, explained that even if the Supreme Court upholds the EPA’s rules, it’s still not certain as to whether the U.S. can meet its targets. To date, the U.S. is projected to be off its goal by as much as 10-23 percent, depending on whether the clean power plan moves forward, the economy picks up again, Western forests recover, and Congress renews renewable energy credits and approves new energy efficiency incentives.

From 1990, U.S. GHGs were on an upward trajectory, Larsen explained, until 2008, when they began to fall, ultimately 14 percent below Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) projections through 2015. About 40 percent of the decline in GHGs is due to the economic recession; 45 percent is due to a reduction in carbon and energy intensity; and 15 percent is due to improved energy efficiency in buildings.

Today, the U.S. has about a 5.5 billion-ton GHG economy, with the power sector accounting for 1.7 billion tons, transportation 1.6 billion tons, industry 1.25 billion tons, and the rest from methane and buildings. Carbon dioxide emissions account for about 80 percent of total emissions, with methane and hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), which are far more potent than carbon in the destructive warming effects, comprising the rest. Methane emissions may be further reduced by improved regulations on oil and gas production and landfills and reductions in meat and dairy consumption, while HFCs, which are released by refrigerators, may be included in a Montreal Protocol amendment, which could reduce their emissions by 150 million metric tons.

The experts on the panel pointed to other ways the U.S. can cut GHGs. More advanced distributed, renewable energy systems, as well as improved public transit and smart growth could reduce emissions, said Larsen. Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown Law, pointed to the new alliance of 8 states and 5 countries that calls for no gas-powered vehicles by 2050. California, which has the 7th largest economy in the world, has signed on to this. Arroyo also said a number of states and cities are setting ambitious targets for moving to renewable energy and starting their own cap and trade systems.

And Scott Fulton, president of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), added that sustainable materials management, using a life-cycle approach, could cut emissions from product manufacturing. With that approach, “we can realize more benefits from waste, like landfill methane capture.” He also said regardless of governmental action, much of the private sector is moving forward with cutting emissions. This is because, “for investors, carbon intensity is now a big red flag.”

But emissions are only one side of the equation — there is also sequestration, particularly for carbon. And with this, forests and soils are what’s critical. Larsen said this is the tricky part of his national estimates, as the “annual variables are substantial, given drought and wild fires, increased demand for forest-related products, and land use changes, such as sprawl,” which all reduce tree cover. Just last year, California lost 50 percent of its trees due to drought and wild fires.

According to a report by the Society of American Foresters, U.S. forests, which account for 8 percent of the world’s forests, store about 200 million tons of carbon each year — an amount equal to about 10 percent of annual emissions. American forests have essentially remain unchanged in total acreage over the past century. Soils also store millions of tons of carbon, but it’s hard to create a precise figure. (Scientists estimate that soils could potentially store 3.5-11 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide). While the U.S. clearly has a GHG emissions target, there doesn’t seem to be one for sequestration. Why not? Why not invest in a goal of doubling America’s natural sequestration of carbon by 2050? Imagine the positive co-benefits on public health and biodiversity.

For Ellen Williams, director of the advanced research projects agency-energy (ARPA-E), which is investing millions in cutting-edge clean energy technologies, boosting the capacity of soils to store carbon could be a real solution. She believes “innovation can change the boundaries of what is possible.” Some of the teams ARPA-E are financing will use “robotics and big data to see how we can create more sustainable plants that put more carbon in the soil through root growth.” ARPA-E is particularly interested in the “root properties of biofuel plants.”

The Visible Hand of the Landscape Architect

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Lawn on D / Christian Phillips Photography
ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Lawn on D / Christian Phillips Photography

Gina Ford, ASLA, a landscape architect and principal at Sasaki Associates, keeps coming back to the same question: “How do we make the hand of the landscape architect visible?” Ford posed the question during a lecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design. She then identified two projects from the multidisciplinary Urban Studio she chairs at Sasaki that demonstrate just a few of the visible roles landscape architects play.

Ford and her team played the roles of planner and designer for Lawn on D in Boston, a 2.5-acre project that grew from Sasaki’s commission to create a master plan for the expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which Ford called “this ginormous spaceship that landed in the seaport.” In the middle of what was then surface parking and scattered industrial buildings, Ford’s team imagined new development and open space to create meaningful connections between the waterfront, convention center, and the historic South Boston neighborhood.

“The community kept wanting open space, open space, open space,” Ford said. “The question was: How do you create open space that will appeal both to convention-goers, who are here for a weekend, and also to the South Boston community that wants to see this as an extension of their neighborhood?” She said,“this idea of the Lawn on D emerged. We created a landscape that’s temporary, so we can test some ideas about what a park might be like here and what resonates.”

After only nine months for design, bids, and construction, the Lawn on D opened in 2014 on a parking lot abutting the convention center at a cost of $10 per square foot. Using what Ford called “modest means,” the Lawn on D features lawn, asphalt, tennis court paint, a canvas tent, light fixtures, and minimal plants. The plan was to keep it open for about 18 months, to see what users liked and didn’t like, and then to collect design and programming ideas for a permanent open space that would be incorporated into the convention center expansion.

18 months later, the convention center expansion has stalled indefinitely due to budget constraints. But in that time, the Lawn on D has become a Boston landmark. Sasaki’s simple design template — green edges framing a path, a paved lighted plaza, a tent, and a big lawn — accommodate food trucks, movie screenings, concerts, art installations, snow chutes, and other creative, Boston-themed events dreamed up by the firm HR&A Advisors. Ford said one of the art installations — Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture — has become the selfie capital of Boston.

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lawn on D / Christian Phillips Photography
ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lawn on D / Christian Phillips Photography

Ford’s team now faces the enviable challenge of how to retrofit and make permanent a space that was meant to last 18 months but instead became a beloved community destination, enlivening a part of town that used to be simply a midpoint between other iconic Boston neighborhoods.

Another project of Ford’s urban design studio is A Delta for All, the winning proposal from the Changing Course design competition, which seeks to “re-imagine a more sustainable Lower Mississippi River delta.” Sasaki joined a team of specialists led by Baird & Associates to answer the central question posed by the competition brief: As the coastal wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico disappear at the rate of one football field per day, is it possible to save the cherished communities and ecosystems of the Lower Mississippi Delta?

Here the hand of the landscape architect was perhaps subtler but no less important. Ford’s role was to communicate — to consider the human element and then explain to stakeholders the function and impact of a proposed engineering marvel.

The plan devised by the team’s engineers and specialists, which boast expertise in everything from wetland structure and sediments to river navigation and oysters, essentially would undo the effects of human channeling of the Mississippi River. Ford explained that before human channeling, the river moved like a hose over the landscape, shifting its mouth over centuries, redistributing upstream sediments to create the wetlands as a series of ridge lines with freshwater basins in between. After human channeling, which created set channels, those valuable upstream sediments ended up running off into the Gulf of Mexico, bypassing the wetlands, therefore failing to replenish them.

A Delta for All proposes diverting the mouth of the Mississippi River and then feeding its water and sediment into neglected inter-tidal basins. Over time, “like spigots on a faucet,” the river mouth could be shifted to feed the inter-tidal basins in rotation, mimicking the natural shifts of the pre-channelized river.

A Delta for All
A Delta for All
A Delta for All
A Delta for All

If implemented, A Delta for All would be a complex undertaking, with major implications for communities and industries, natural ecosystems, and long-held ways of life. Ford’s team created graphics and a website to break down the issues, proposed solutions, and expected immediate and long-term benefits for coastal communities.

And they also tackled the challenge of possible re-locations for the wetland communities whose homes wouldn’t be spared. “Most of the federal programs to migrate people out of high-risk zones are just one household at a time, but as we came to understand, people in the delta live in these really tight-knit small communities,” Ford said. “So we suggested maybe there’s a way to phase their inland migration over time, providing some safe haven in the short term for small communities to move inland during storm events, and over time that inland safe haven could become a permanent home.” She added, “perhaps this is a way to start thinking about moving people in the right direction, over a larger period of time, together.”

These projects get to the heart of Ford’s mission to make the hand of the landscape architect visible, or as she also put it, to help people recognize “that landscape is more than the parsley around the pig.” How can we help people to value their landscapes in the same way they value their buildings? When landscape architects transform a community’s physical spaces — whether it’s at the scale of a new park in an evolving urban district or an entire region faced with deep ecological change — they can improve quality of life and nourish the human spirit. Surely that kind of impact will help people to see and value their landscapes and those who design them.

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 29)

le-caveau-christian-poules-installations-international-garden-festival-quebec_dezeen_ban
Le Caveau by Christian Poules is a four-sided room with walls made of stones contained within steel frames / Dezeen

Installations for Quebec Garden Festival to Include Pavilion and Suspended Cone – Dezeen Magazine, 2/17/16
“A shadowy room with gabion walls and a suspended canopy made of wooden slats are among the winners of a juried competition to design installations for this year’s International Garden Festival, in Quebec, Canada.”

Contested Landscapes: 9 Public Re-Appropriations of Urban Infrastructure Architizer, 2/18/16
“In cities around the world, space that was once fully given over to utilitarian functions such as highway interchanges, elevated rail lines, waterways and streets are being wrestled into the public domain for the use of the pedestrian.”

The Salt Season Metropolis, 2/23/16
“This mixture increases winter road safety, melting ice and providing needed friction on slippery surfaces, but its application also produces a number of negative side effects, including a very toxic impact on plant life adjacent to roadways.”

Arizona Bill Would Kill Licensing Requirements for a Host of Professionals, From Yoga Instructors to Geologists The Arizona Republic, 2/25/16
“Todd Briggs is at the height of his career as a landscape architect. After years at a larger firm, he started his own business. But he fears his career in Arizona may now be in jeopardy.”

Two Downtown L.A. Parks and the Tricky Task of Designing Them to Best Serve the CityThe Los Angeles Times, 2/25/16
“In the spring of 1985, Jack Smith wrote a column for this newspaper with the following headline: ‘Can Downtown L.A. Survive Its Own Heady Prosperity?'”

An Obstacle Path to a Seamless Tel Aviv Bike Lane Network Haaretz, 2/27/16
“Growing bike use in Tel Aviv creates new challenges; whole areas of the city are unserved by bike paths, and the existing network is barely connected to paths in adjoining towns.”