Book Review: Cityscapes of New Orleans

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LSU Press

Set Tulane University professor Richard Campanella down at any intersection in New Orleans, and he can likely deduce what economic, political, or environmental forces determined that street’s spatial qualities. This knowledge and much else has been inscribed in Campanella’s latest book, Cityscapes of New Orleans.

Cityscapes is a compendium of essays that examines New Orleans’ landscape through the lenses of design, planning, and history. It is more than a rote demonstration of knowledge, though. The book is an energetic engagement with Campanella’s two great passions: New Orleans and geography.

Geography, though it has taken a backseat in the landscape discourse, has the unsettling ability to illuminate the larger patterns and systems in which we’re embedded. Consider the work of Allen Gathman, a biology professor at SE Missouri State University. After the 2008 presidential election, Gathman took interest in a string of counties, arcing across the southeast United States, that Barack Obama had won. These blue counties, surrounded by a sea of red, coincided with the cotton belt of the antebellum south, and thus had a primarily black populace. And why was the soil in those counties so well-suited for cotton production? It is a loamy, alluvial soil, deposited by a cretaceous-era ocean, the coastline of which would roughly align with those same blue counties. Past, as they say, is prologue.

That is one example of the insight that geography affords; Cityscapes offers many such insights. Like Gathman, Campanella is interested in the “why behind the where.” Take Campanella’s investigation of New Orleans’ “accidental forest,” for instance. How did a 27-acre patch of remnant forest in the heart of Gentilly survive this long without being developed? A series of near-misses and happenstance, it turns out. But it’s a part of the tapestry of curiosities that add to the city’s character.

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Accidental forest

New Orleans’ larger geographic context is perhaps as interesting as the city itself, and Campanella devotes a section of the book to exploring aspects of New Orlean’s regional relationships. This includes a portrait of the “Ozone Belt,” a pinewood landscape upland of Lake Pontchartrain that city residents previously visited like a health retreat. Certain that the swamplands of Lake Pontchartrain were the source of miasmas and sickness in the city, New Orleans residents who could afford to would stay at therapeutic inns in the Ozone Belt and enjoy what they believed to be the curative properties of the pine’s effervescence.

Staying on the subject of swamps, Campanella also devotes several essays to how their presence and eventual draining impacted the city’s entire terrain. City-wide drainage began in the 1890s with the development of a sophisticated runoff system that funneled water into surrounding water bodies. The effect was “nothing short of revolutionary,” according to Campanella.

The result was the withdrawal of the swamplands and the migration of inhabitants into these areas. The unforeseen effect was soil subsidence, which triggered the collapse of certain built structures. Continued draining in the following century led to the subversion of in-ground infrastructure. “Topography matters,” Campanella writes.

Fog That Doesn’t Obscure

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

What can be done with a 10-acre series of three derelict reflecting pools in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York? Instead of restoring them at great expense, resulting in excessive water and energy use, landscape architects with New York-based Quennell Rothschild & Partners had an ingenious idea. Turn them into a amphitheater, water play space, and a “fog garden,” which will generate a four-foot-high field of fog, or if the NYC parks department so chooses, “waves of fog,” with a fraction of the water used by the typical splash park.

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Mark Bunnell, ASLA, a partner with Quennell Rothschild, said their new design, which will replace the reflecting pool at the Fountain of the Fairs, respects the historic park’s existing layout and even enhances it with an Art Deco paving pattern. The Fountain of the Fairs occupies a central axis connecting the iconic Unisphere with the Fountain of the Planets, created for the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.

1939 World’s Fair / Pinterest
1939 World’s Fair / Pinterest

The fog will be created by 500 nozzles spread through the 300-foot-long and 50-foot-wide (17,300 square feet) space, set in a 1.7-acre garden. In a system Quennell Rothschild designed with Delta Fountains, there are nine pumps that enable the park managers to control the nozzles, so that the fog can appear like a field or roll-down in waves. Each nozzle emits approximately 3 gallons per hour, but not all are in use at any given time.

The fog will only reach four feet off the ground. If there are any concerns about safety or transparency, “they can use the waves,” creating gaps in the mist. The fog will also dissipate quickly, barring “atmospheric conditions.”

Alongside the fog garden, Quennell Rothschild is replacing “massed Yew trees” with a landscape of grasses, low evergreens, and maples that will open up views.

Fog Garden at the Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Later phases will turn the segment of the reflecting pool east of the fog garden into an amphitheater and then, farthest east, into a water playground.

Fountain of the Fairs, Queens, NY / Quennell Rothschild & Partners

Construction on the $4.3 million garden begins in April.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2017

DesignIntelligence

As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2017. Coverage of conferences, including the American Planning Association (APA), Greenbuild, Earth Optimism Summit, and Biophilic Leadership Summit, attracted the greatest interest. And news on the health benefits of nature and the fate of Modernist landscapes were widely read.

Always worth mentioning: We are looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners, on topics that inspire you. If interested, please email us at info@asla.org.

1) DesignIntelligence 2017 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings

DesignIntelligence recently announced its 2017 landscape architecture graduate and undergraduate program rankings. For the third year in a row, Louisiana State University (LSU) was deemed the best undergraduate landscape architecture program. And for the 13th consecutive year, Harvard University retained its dominance as the best graduate program, in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.

2) Best Podcasts for Landscape Architects

Over the past decade, podcasts have emerged as a popular storytelling platform and captivating way to learn more about the world around us.
Podcasts offer a source of inspiration for designers exploring other disciplines and seeking fresh perspective within their own. For landscape architects, podcasts reveal new opportunities and ways of thinking about the way we design space.

3) New Ruralism: Solutions for Struggling Small Towns

New Urbanism is a well-known movement that aims to create more walkable communities. Less known is New Ruralism, which is focused on the preservation and enhancement of rural communities beyond the edge of metropolitan regions. Small towns now part of this nascent movement seek to define themselves on their own terms, not just in relation to nearby cities. These towns are more than “just food sheds for metro areas,” explained Peg Hough, Vermont, planner and environmental advocate with Community-resilience.org, at the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference in New York City. Representatives from three northeastern states — Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire — explained how the principles of New Ruralism can help suffering communities.

4) Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

5) Serenbe’s New Wellness District Features a Food Forest

Deep in the woods southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is a unique designed community — a mixed-use development, with clusters of villages comprised of townhouses and apartments fueled by solar panels and heated and cooled by geothermal systems, and vast open spaces with organic farms, natural waste water treatment systems, and preserved forests. A leader in the “agrihood” movement, which calls for agriculture-centric community development, Serenbe is now moving into wellness with its new development called Mado.

6) What We Still Don’t Know about the Health Benefits of Nature

We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?

7) Are Modernist Landscapes Worth Saving?

As our cities evolve, and what people want from their public spaces changes, should Modernist parks, plazas, and streets be saved? For lovers of Modernism, the answer is always yes. But, in reality, if the public, and their representatives, choose to keep these spaces, many will need to better respond to contemporary expectations. The question then is how can they be “respectfully honored and adapted?,” asked Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, in an event at the National Building Museum at Washington, D.C.

8) The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 1)

While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.

9) Lessons Learned from the First Generation of Net-zero Communities

The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

10) Reasons to Be Optimistic about the Future of the Environment (Part 1)

“It’s easy to be cynical or pessimistic” about the the state of the global environment, said David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the opening of the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. “We’re not blind to the realities, but if organizations and individuals work together, obstacles can be overcome.” Over three days, an audience of 1,400 heard one inspiring environmental success story after another. While no one forgot that climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have created a global environmental emergency, there was a concerted effort to change the narrative — from one of relentless anger and despair to one of progress and a cautious optimism about the future. The goal was to highlight was is working today and figure out the ways to replicate and scale up successes.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16 – 31)

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A resident walking at the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, Dallas / Skylar Fike, via CityLab

Halprin’s Heritage Park Plaza in Texas Will Receive Complete Restoration The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/19/17
“Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin loved cities, so it was only fitting that his cliffside Fort Worth, Texas, commission, Heritage Park Plaza (HPP), was the first-ever item on the National Register of Historic Places designated solely as landscape architecture.”

Preparing Trees to Go From Green Pastures to the Concrete Jungle The Washington Post, 12/19/17
“The rolling hills of the Casey Tree Farm in Clarke County, Va., seem a million miles and a distant age from the real estate bustle of the District of Columbia and its constant reinvention, but these pastures offer the city future relief in a climate-changing century.”

Urban Planning Has a Sexism ProblemNext City, 12/19/17
“Take a moment to look around you. Really look. See the city — the streets, the buildings, the spaces between them — and realize for a moment that virtually everything you see has been designed and shaped by men.”

Community Leaders Skeptical About New Obama Center Garage DesignThe Chicago Tribune, 12/21/17
“A revised design for the Obama Presidential Center’s controversial parking garage is getting a thumbs-down from some community leaders who attended a closed-door meeting at which the plan was unveiled.”

Good Design Is a Public Good CityLab, 12/26/17
“If you asked 100 random people or even 100 designers, ‘What is design?’ you would get approximately that many different answers. In the most positive sense, this explains the pervasiveness of designers working in and touching every imaginable aspect of our lives.”

Miami Puts It All on the Line with New Park Project Travel Weekly, 12/27/17
“When Miami unveils the first three of its 10 planned linear miles of parks and trails in 2020, the Underline will join the ranks of New York’s Highline, Atlanta’s Beltline, Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and Chicago’s 606.”