Amid Divisive Politics, Keeping a Laser Focus on Climate Change

From top: ASLA 2016 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. The Big U, New York, NY. BIG and Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners. ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. Perez Art Museum Miami: Resiliency by Design, Miami, Florida. ArquitectonicaGEO / copyright Robin Hill. Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY. SCAPE Landscape Architecture. ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Award. Sea Change: Boston, Boston, MA. Sasaki Associates.

Later this spring, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) will release a set of policy recommendations on climate change and resilience designed to better arm advocates pursuing changes in laws, regulations, and codes at the federal, state, and local levels. Introducing a panel at the group’s spring meeting in Washington, D.C., ASLA CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, explained that the recommendations will cover both natural systems and the built environment, and their goal will be to spur the use of financial incentives to encourage positive change.

Natural system recommendations will include measures designed to expand the use of green infrastructure; protect tree canopies, green bio-corridors, and open spaces; support biodiversity, especially among pollinators; and assist diverse plants and animal species migrate and adapt. Example recommendations include: create dedicated funding streams for green infrastructure; incentivize the planting of native and regionally-appropriate plants, protection of habitats, and the increase of biodiversity; and encourage the inclusion of climate change assessments in green space planning, including at the regional level.

Built environment recommendations focus on how to further encourage more resilient and sustainable growth patterns through the use of compact development, sustainable land development and zoning, and transit. Example recommendations include: restructure insurance to encourage resilient re-building; set up community investment trusts for green infrastructure and resilient design projects; and evaluate new transit projects through an equity lens.

A panel discussion then covered how allied organizations are maintaining a focus on climate change in today’s divisive political climate. ASLA President Greg Miller, FASLA, led Jeff Soule, director of outreach at the American Planning Association (APA); Mark Golden, CEO of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE); Tom Smith, CEO of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); and Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, immediate past-president of ASLA, through a discussion.

To varying degrees, all organizations actively call for sustainable and resilient planning, design, and engineering that will help communities better protect themselves and adapt.

A key message, which was relevant for all organizations, came from Golden: “health, safety, and welfare (HSW) comes above all other considerations.” Following where the climate science leads, these organizations promote sustainable and resilient practices because they will help ensure health, safety, and welfare in an era of temperature and weather extremes.

According to Golden, more resilient buildings and landscapes are less costly to build if they are created in advance of a destructive natural event. A recent National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) report found that for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation saves $6 after a disaster. Sadly, though, most communities “continue to be reactive instead of pro-active” in preparing for climate change-driven natural disasters.

Rinner explained ASLA is now purposefully talking more directly about climate change. “The words we use matter. We take a strong position on climate change, sustainability, resilience, and adaptation.” She added that nearly a third of sessions at last year’s Annual Meeting & EXPO in Los Angeles were focused on climate change and resilience.

In the next year or two, Congress will be taking up a new transportation bill. The sentiment seemed to be advocating for a more sustainable transportation system at the federal level will be an uphill battle. According to APA director Soule, “we are actually regressing at the federal level and just trying to keep what we’ve accomplished.” Leadership on green and complete streets and other forward-thinking transportation systems now comes from states and cities. Most of the funds for transportation will be spent at those levels, too, so it makes sense to focus advocacy there.

ASCE CEO Smith said it’s increasingly important to leverage skills and resources from the local level. He sees the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which is training chief resilience officers around the world, as a success story.

Rinner agreed, explaining that the bottom-up We’re Still In coalition — a group of American communities adhering to the U.S. commitments to the Paris climate accord — has signed up 2,700 cities and towns, and the numbers keep growing. “Local action can have a cumulative impact.”

States and cities can also experiment and create new models where the federal government cannot. For example, California has taken the lead in developing a new carbon trading system. “The rest of the world is watching to see if it works — and if it does, California’s model will become something more can follow.”

Smith brought up how the dearth of maintenance budgets hurts efforts to achieve greater sustainability and resilience. According to a report card ASCE releases every four years, the U.S.’s infrastructure now has a sad D+ rating. “Maintenance is the number-one issue.” To deal with this problem, ASCE is developing new guidelines to reduce infrastructure life cycle costs by 50 percent. “We’ve got to think differently in the future.” Smith sees some public-private partnerships as leading the way on the leaner, smarter infrastructure of the future.

In a reality check, APA director Soule cautioned there is still a major gap between high-level policy discussions on sustainability and resilience and the situation on the ground. For example: As New Orleans rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, local officials and planners tried to stave off rebuilding in areas that had been deemed especially at risk of flooding, with the goal of saving those areas for permanent stormwater management. But the “political reality” demanded homeowners be allowed to build back where they had lived before.

The truth is no one wants to be told they can’t go back home and rebuild. As a changing climate impacts more communities, reconciling health, safety, and welfare considerations with people’s emotional attachment to a place will become an even greater challenge.

Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle (Part 1)

Map of North Carolina research triangle / Wikipedia

In mid-April, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) hosted Leading with Landscape IV: Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the latest in TCLF’s series of conferences designed to help communities better understand how landscape architecture can yield transformational change in the public realm. Ten speakers from the Triangle and nine from elsewhere gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, to unpack the region’s history, explore its landscapes, and pose questions about the role of landscape architecture in a region reconciling tensions between growth, equity, and ecology.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of TCLF, introduced the notion that the Triangle’s landscapes represent a continuum of “cultural lifeways” — landscapes that have over time encompassed public squares and greenways, parkways, and freeways; agrarian values and modernist ideals; asphalt-dominated office parks and revitalized downtown cores.

Adriaan Geuze, ASLA, founding partner at West 8, is designing a sculpture garden for the Nasher Museum of Art on the suburban-feeling stretch of Duke University that lies between its Georgian East and Gothic West campuses. Geuze shared ideas about improving the journey from East to West, and his firm’s attempts to find inspiration in the site’s Piedmont landscape, which had been compromised by stream channelization and road construction.

Geuze joked that culverts are “America’s legacy to natural land,” and he described with humor his perception of Campus Drive, the Olmsted Brothers road that connects East and West campuses: “Everyone travels it — up and down, up and down. It’s pretty dumb. It’s not cool. The buses are noisy. And if you are a student on a bike, you are dead five times in a mile — it is very simple; you will not survive.”

Rendering of Campus Drive / West 8, via ArchDaily

Later in the day the same landscape features — the ubiquitous culvert and Duke’s Campus Drive — made it into the remarks of Alexandra Lange, Curbed’s architecture critic who grew up in Durham. For Lange, the “little wilderness” of the culvert near her family’s house was one of the most precious cultural landscapes of her childhood, as was Campus Drive, which afforded some measure of teenage independence when she was allowed to ride “the slowest, safest bus in the world.”

The distance between the remarks suggests the fertile ground on which the conference operated, seeking to make sense of a landscape continuum that can contain both definitions of a culvert — on the one hand a symbol of irresponsible design practice and an obstacle to ecological restoration, and on the other hand a vernacular feature, a site of memory and attachment capable of fostering genuine communion with nature.

Randolph Hester, FASLA, director of the Center for Ecological Democracy, is a North Carolina native and Durham resident. He described the Piedmont as “the land of the second sons,” dominated in its earliest European settlement by those who had not inherited the family plantation in Virginia and so moved south to become modest “dirt farmers,” inextricably tied to the land and characterized by “ragged edges.”

“How do we maintain that modesty as we become a place where everybody wants to be doing design?” Hester asked. “How do you get the essence when you come from the outside? And it makes me think — how do natives get the essence of a place when they take it for granted?”

The conference offered a venue for both outsiders and natives to grapple with questions of place and authenticity. The opening presentation by Birnbaum, followed by North Carolina State University faculty members Chuck Flink, FASLA, and Kofi Boone, ASLA, grounded the day’s discussions in the history and contemporary realities of the Triangle.

Flink, president of Greenways Inc., offered a sweeping view of the Triangle’s landscape spanning millennia. He traced over time the importance of local ecology in driving culture, economies, and development patterns. He reminded the audience that the Piedmont, before European settlement, was defined by a deciduous and pine forest so thick that, in the words of ecologist B. W. Wells: “One could travel for days without a good view of the sun, and at night the constellations could seldom be seen because of the interfering canopy.”

Extracting resin from a longleaf pine / North Carolina Office of Archives and History

Flink spoke to the degradation of that forest to make way for farmland, which later made way for quarter-acre subdivisions. He addressed the “myth of an aristocracy” established by European Southerners to justify the brutal, economy-building exploitation of enslaved Africans. He pointed out that a young Frederick Law Olmsted was the first to broadly expose that myth through a series of articles for the New-York Daily Times.

And he pointed to the traditional push and pull between development and ecological design in the Triangle, represented on one end by the city-approved floodplain development of Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall — which flooded the day before its opening in 1972 — and on the other end by growth since the 1970s of the city’s 115-mile, 3,800-acre riparian greenway system, which has become an international model.

Neuse River Greenway Trail / Stewart

Boone offered a crash course in regional history through a cultural lens. He described the economic engine of Research Triangle Park (RTP), a suburban office park that in the 1960s marketed its proximity — by way of forested highways — to three major research universities. RTP currently is seeking to retrofit its sprawl — to introduce an urban fabric that it sees as essential to attracting today’s top talent.

Research Triangle Park / Cisco Systems

Boone then discussed the Triangle’s history of racism in the landscape — from plantation slavery to Jim Crow segregation, and the relegation of lower-wealth, African-American communities to floodplains. He spoke about the black communities that grew out of segregation, including the financial powerhouse of Black Wall Street in Durham, and the role of Raleigh’s African-American Chavis Park in hosting the early development of peaceful protest tactics by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which itself was founded at the segregated Shaw University.

Chavis Park circa 1930s / Esther Delaney via The News & Observer

But Boone reminded the audience that the Triangle’s cultural and demographic milieu is far from black-and-white. The Latino population is the biggest driver of growth in the Triangle, and the Asian population is growing in the suburbs closest to RTP. Boone pointed to evidence of this growth in the landscape, such as the Durham Green Flea Market and the growing number of Hindu temples in suburbs like Cary and Morrisville. “They’re bringing their cultural traditions with them, but right now they’re not represented in our public landscape,” Boone said. “What could that mean in 50 years, as these communities continue to grow and build resources? What will they think of our place?”

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, professor of history at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, addressed representation in the Triangle’s public landscapes through the lens of Confederate monuments. He referred to the “physical manifestations of memory that came to clutter the landscape” in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when private activists with access to funds and political power were allowed to install their monuments on public land, creating landscapes that were “by design, permanently exclusionary.”

Durham’s Confederate monument, which made national news after it was toppled by protesters in August, 2017, was dedicated in 1924. Brundage said that when private fundraising efforts for the monument failed, Julian Carr, a Confederate veteran, tobacco executive, and white supremacist, lobbied the state to allow public funds to supplement its cost.

Durham Confederate statue / WRAL.com

That same year in Durham, on land down the road that had been donated by Carr, Trinity College rebranded itself as Duke University following a $19 million gift from James Buchanan Duke. In 1927, construction began on West Campus. A Philadelphia-based, African-American architect named Julian Abele designed the buildings. His identity was kept a secret until the 1980s, and he is rumored to have never visited the campus, as Duke and North Carolina at that time were strictly segregated. The Olmsted Brothers designed the West Campus landscape.

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, founding principal at Reed Hilderbrand, has worked on a range of Duke campus projects during the past decade. He addressed the challenges inherent in working on historic landscapes, including how to balance principles of design integrity and timelessness with shifting social and political contexts that demand an updated approach.

Duke’s restored Abele Quad / Reed Hilderbrand

“While I would never say that it was easy for Julian Abele and the Olmsted Brothers to envision Duke’s campus from the start — it wasn’t easy; it’s never easy — we’ve seen how the narratives that drive renewal or expansion in our own time are colored by a far more democratic, more political and noisier world in which we negotiate for change; we negotiate for everything. I doubt if they had much of a committee back then, and it’s pretty unlikely that student groups were involved.” Hilderbrand characterized his firm’s approach as “building and rebuilding the negotiated campus, where many voices are heard, and where the challenge for design is to give voice to plurality without sacrificing conviction or deluding intentions.”

Mark Hough, FASLA, university landscape architect at Duke, described the full range of distinct campus landscapes across the Triangle, including RTP and Durham’s American Tobacco Campus. He described the “dignified restraint” of the 18th-century University of North Carolina, which he said maintained its site’s gently rolling topography. North Carolina State, the land-grant university, had an early pastoral plan that was quickly abandoned in the chaos of postwar growth, leading to what Hough described as charm in a lack of cohesion and in a personal winding experience through campus. Duke’s West Campus, he said, was originally planned by the Olmsted Brothers to hug the ridge. When funds dwindled, that plan was replaced by a Beaux Arts version that flattened the landscape.

North Carolina State University campus / NC State University

Hough argued campus landscapes have the potential to instill in generations of students an appreciation for aesthetics, ecology, and the designed landscape. And he argued the heart of campus landscape architecture lies in stewardship — in ethos and practice that preserve and enhance the integrity, purpose, and beauty of landscapes over time.

Presentations over the course of the day evoked the shifting cultural, political, and physical landscapes of the Triangle. Linda Jewell, FASLA, partner at Freeman and Jewell Landscape Architecture, grew up in Sanford, North Carolina; practiced in the Triangle during the 1980s; then spent most of her career in Berkeley. But for decades she has made regular trips to the Triangle to visit friends, colleagues, and family, and she shared her impressions over time.

“I get these little glimpses. It’s encouraging and discouraging. I’m very envious when I see people doing projects at Duke and projects around the area where — oh, my God — they allow people to eat on the sidewalks. Sam Reynolds and I constantly proposed letting people eat outside, and we weren’t allowed to do it. And we constantly proposed not having huge swaths of green lawn around everything, but we could not convince either the clients or the review institutions that this was a better way to go. So much progress has been made in terms of some of those things.”

But Jewell sounded a cautionary note about the Triangle’s larger landscape. She said she remembers the thick forests that used to line Interstate 40, which connects several communities throughout the Triangle and takes many people from the suburbs to RTP. Every time she comes home, she said, she sees more of the “suburban schlock” that lies behind the increasingly shallow treeline.

Interstate 40 / Regional Transportation Alliance

“It is a veil,” she said. “It is hiding all of that bad stuff that we’re doing behind the veil. Don’t forget about all of that suburban stuff we’ve built. We’ve got to do something with it.”

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

Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle (Part 2)

Rendering of North Carolina Museum Park expansion / North Carolina Museum of Art, Civitas

At Leading for Landscape IV: Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and invited speakers showcased three public park projects that represent the region’s aspirations and suggest that — at least in design of the highest-profile public parks in Raleigh — there is mainstream acceptance of parks as cultural landscapes with the potential to bridge histories, promote democracy, and serve pluralist communities.

Daniel Gottlieb is director of planning and design at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which in the 1980s moved from downtown Raleigh to a 164-acre tract a 15-minute drive away. He has overseen the development of the Museum Park, which began with unplanned use of the campus open space by people who found their way there by car or greenway. It has since become an intentional effort by the museum to welcome and engage the public.

Gottlieb described the pre-museum history of the site, which most recently held a violent and segregated youth prison. He said his goal has been to use “ethical design” to transform the site into a place of gathering, diversity, ecological restoration, and public benefit. “The narrative arc for the North Carolina Museum of Art campus is one, you might say, of redemption — from incarceration and decay, from racism and segregation, to one of a cultural campus and of healing.”

Mark Johnson, FASLA, founding principal at Civitas, has overseen the latest addition to the Museum Park, a designed landscape that pulls visitors into the site and makes connections between the road and the park, between the museum and the park, and within the park itself (see image at top). Johnson described the firm’s use of precision in the landscape — perfect lines, a perfect ellipse, all softened by a native plant palette — to create spaces “that would support the idea that this was museum space. This is an outdoor gallery, but it’s also nature, but it’s also open-ended for you to experience however you want.”

The two other parks celebrated at the conference are City of Raleigh projects. Stephen Bentley, assistant director for Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources department, said Red Mountain Park in Birmingham and the Atlanta Beltline offer lessons in the promise and challenge of dealing with histories of racism, segregation, and gaping divides between haves and have-nots.

“Everything is not hunky-dory,” Bentley said of the cultural and economic divides in the Triangle. “We have a lot of success and a lot of great projects in the Triangle, but with great success comes great challenges. We have a lot of great momentum, and I think we should constantly be clear about the decisions we make, who we want to be, and where we want to go from here.”

The City of Raleigh hired Sasaki in 2015 to redesign Moore Square, one of two remaining downtown public squares of the four that were set aside in Raleigh’s original 1792 plan. (The loss of the public open space provided by the two other squares has been decried for more than a century; TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, suggested in his opening remarks that Raleigh’s world-class greenway system is a 20th-century realization of its earlier, abandoned vision of accessible public space.)

Raleigh’s 1792 Christmas Plan / State of North Carolina Archives

Moore Square had become cluttered and underused over time; its newest iteration is currently under construction. Gina Ford, FASLA, formerly of Sasaki and now principal at Agency Landscape + Planning, traced Sasaki’s work redesigning Moore Square to an exhibit the firm had created to explore how legacy park systems were adapting for the 21st century. She said that lens — understanding the original plan, and how it might fit into a downtown Raleigh defined by growth and aspirations of equity — was key to their vision for an updated Moore Square. The design team included historians and local experts. They analyzed historical view sheds and relationships, the material nature of other historic downtown spaces, and the well-being of the square’s heritage oaks, some of which were more than 200 years old.

Redesign of Moore Square / City of Raleigh, Sasaki

“Through all of this scalar exploration of Moore Square, from understanding its role in the district to understanding its role in the city, the park, all the way down to its material quality and its programmatic overlay, we hope that people who come to this new place see themselves through this landscape as part of that historic stream,” Ford said.

The biggest park project in the Triangle is Dorothea Dix Park, a 308-acre site of rolling hills and heritage oaks right on the edge of downtown Raleigh. The site was home until 2012 to Dorothea Dix Hospital, a mental health institution named after the 19th-century advocate who founded it. The City of Raleigh purchased the site in 2015 and hired Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) in 2017 to oversee a two-year master planning process.

Dorothea Dix Park site / The News & Observer

Kate Pearce, senior planner with the City of Raleigh for Dorothea Dix Park, hopes Dix will become a world-class park that “redefines what it means to be making pubic space in our communities.”

“I feel like we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something that is going to impact lives for years to come,” Pearce said. “And we have the great opportunity but also the great challenge to ensure that as we create this park, the entire community believes that it is of and for them.” Pearce said the city was getting creative in reaching people who don’t usually come to planning meetings.

Adult egg hunt at Dorothea Dix Park / Dorothea Dix Park

Adrienne Heflich, ASLA, associate at MVVA, gave an update on the firm’s attempts to pull a coherent and world-class park design from an enormous tract that still holds remnants of a landfill, a cemetery, and a hospital, including dozens of intact buildings.

The MVVA team has conceptually divided the site; about half of it would be inspired by the ideas and values of 19th-century American landscape architecture, “to embody the feeling of boundlessness, evince a lack of discernible edges, and support restored Piedmont habitats that have been erased or obscured or not celebrated previously.”

The rest of the site, including most of the buildings and the connections to downtown, would evoke a 21st-century activated park, “where there’s a successful juxtaposition of program, art, building reuse, interpretation of historic landscapes — and those are all blended together to create a new expression of urban and civic space really relevant to Raleigh and to the region.” Heflich cited Millennium Park in Chicago as an example.

At the end of a day of presentations that featured stunning but largely stand-alone landscape architecture projects around the Triangle, a final panel weighed in, offering additional and complementary visions for what it could mean to lead with landscape in the Triangle.

Andrew Fox, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, shared a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted, who remarked on a trip in the 1850s that “the country for miles about Raleigh is nearly all pine forest, unfertile and so little cultivated that it is a mystery how a town of 2,500 inhabitants can obtain sufficient supplies from it to exist.”

Fox reminded the audience of issues facing the Triangle today — the degradation of local ecosystems and loss of farmland to sprawl; record-breaking heat; record-breaking drought; record-breaking deluge rainfalls; and projected population growth, among the largest and fastest in the country. Olmsted’s question of capacity remains, Fox said: “New issues are in many ways amplifications of old issues.”

Alexandra Lange, Curbed‘s architecture critic who grew up in Durham, was one of several final panelists to lament the absence of discussion regarding regional public transit and broader regional connectivity. “Maybe if this conference comes back here in 10 years, should it all be about paths and not parks?” Lange proposed.

Rendering of proposed light rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill / GoTriangle

Randolph Hester, FASLA, Durham resident and director of the Center for Ecological Democracy, pushed the audience to pursue democratic design, to foster authentic and open-ended public dialogues, and to advocate for their communities with vision and courage. “We have talked a lot about special places today. I think the real challenge is about the neighborhood. Most people live in neighborhoods. There are some really great stories and some really terrible stories about neighborhoods, and we need as we move forward to keep those in mind. The neighborhood is our closest and dearest public landscape.”

He brought up Chavis Heights, a neighborhood that he had helped to protect from urban renewal in the 1960s and that had declined due to a lack of public investment. “If we can do a Dix Park, we should be able to revitalize Chavis Heights as one of the unique black communities of this country.”

Mitchell Silver, Honorary ASLA, former director of planning in Raleigh and now commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, reminded landscape architects to look beyond the history and transformation of the land.

“There’s stories to be told in our land, but there’s also stories to be told by the communities that inhabit them,” he said. Change that will result in greater regional connectivity and density will require a broader approach: “It’s not just about transforming the place; it’s also transforming ourselves. We’re going to have to ask ourselves some difficult questions.

Walter Havener, ASLA, founding principal at Surface 678, asked the audience to remember the vital contributions of local design communities and institutions in leading with landscape through daily practice. “And I think that NC State has been integral to that process of promulgating those people and putting them out in the society, and I think that is one of the legs of the stool which holds up the Triangle. It is a remarkable story, and I think that it has been just as transforming as any other phenomenon that we’ve seen today.”

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

Smithsonian’s Ambitious South Mall Masterplan Clears Major Hurdle

Smithsonian South Mall campus / Smithsonian Institution

Today, a revamped master plan for the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus cleared one of the last remaining hurdles — approval by the Commission on Fine Arts. First released to the public four years ago, the original plan by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and landscape architecture firm Surface Design, among other firms, was criticized for eliminating the beloved Enid A. Haupt Garden in favor of a more contemporary landscape. After years of refining the plan with significant public input, a revitalized garden, which is the legacy of the great philanthropist and horticulturalist Enid A. Haupt, is back at the centerpiece of the quadrangle framed by the Castle, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Ripley Educational Center, National Museum of African Art Museum (NMAAM), and the Arts & Industries building.

Enid A. Haupt garden / Smithsonian Newsdesk

The updated master plan is smart: it proposes using a series of fully-accessible entrances to bring visitors down to a unified underground space that will seamlessly connect museums. This will also stop tourists and visitors from having to ascend and descend each time they want to visit a museum, going through security and checking bags over and over. The master plan will guide the 20-year-long $2 billion project.

Underground connectivity and infrastructure enhancements / Smithsonian Institution , BIG

Major updates made to the plan over the past four years:

The Castle acts a front door to the south mall campus, a portal into the more secluded quadrangle. According to Smithsonian Undersecretary Albert Horvath, more than 80 percent polled by the Smithsonian see the Castle as the central symbol of the museum and research system, so its enhancement as a hub is the first major project of the master plan.

BIG reduced the proposed excavation under the Castle by 50 percent, while still expanding the public space within the building and connecting it underground to the rest of the campus.

Underground connector / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

The 37-feet-tall Sackler and African Art Museum pavilions, which line Independence Avenue and hem in the south side of the quadrangle, will be removed in favor of smaller 26-foot glass pavilions at the north edge of the quadrangle. The pavilions were moved to the north end because “70 percent of the traffic” to the under-visited Sackler and NMAAM comes from the National Mall.

Entry pavilions for the Sackler Gallery and National Museum of African Art / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

In a presentation to the CFA, BIG project manager Aran Coakley said: “the Sackler and National Museum of African Art lack a presence on the National Mall. Moving the pavilions, so they can be seen from the Mall, will elevate their visibility.” Despite the criticism about the contemporary peeled-up glass pavilions found in early proposals, they make a re-appearance here, but in a more subdued form.

View of the Sackler Gallery Entry Pavilion from across Jefferson Avenue / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

The landscape is also poised for a major overhaul, but not for another decade. The Enid A. Haupt garden will be re-made because it rests on a green roof structure that needs to be rebuilt.

But perhaps more importantly, with the removal of the pavilions, the scale of the garden has changed and therefore the experience of the landscape needs to be re-considered.

As CFA Commissioner and landscape designer Liza Gilbert, ASLA, explained: “Everything has changed. The gardens are so much more open now with an expanded street presence.”

View of the landscape from Independence Avenue / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

Furthermore, given new skylights will stream light deep into the museums from the edge of green roof that holds up the Haupt garden, there is a new design opportunity to “show how this all works. Visitors will be able to see the landscape layers, so it’s important to make them apparent.”

Expanded skylights / Smithsonian Institution, BIG

Gilbert called for a rigorous “landscape investigation” along the lines of what has occurred with the campuses’ structures, in order to turn the current plan’s “notional ideas” into a design that enhances the intimate scale of the gardens, improves resilience and sustainability, and illuminates how landscape architecture works.

Other elements of the plan: a new entrance for the Freer Gallery on the west side of the museum; an integrated underground circuit for trucks delivering and picking up art works; a revitalized Hirshhorn building and landscape and new design for a new sunken sculpture garden and subterranean exhibition spaces on the north side of Jefferson Avenue; clearer surface connections between all the buildings and museums and down to the new Eco-District that will line L’Enfant Plaza; redesigned connections between galleries underground and reconfigured spaces for artworks; a fully-restored Arts & Industries building; expanded events and educational spaces in the Arts & Industries building and Castle; and, lastly, an expanded Mary Livingston Ripley garden.

Next up for the Smithsonian: finalize the programmatic agreement, which concludes the Section 106 historic preservation consultation process, and discuss in one last public meeting. And in the early summer, take the final version of the master plan to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) once more.

The Desert Gardens of Steve Martino

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Desert Gardens of Steve Marino / Monacelli Press

The work of landscape architect Steve Martino, FASLA, derives its interest and relevance from a simple notion: the desert landscape should be celebrated, not ignored. This notion is expertly manifested in the 21 gardens featured in the new book Desert Gardens of Steve Martino, edited by Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, and photographed by Steve Gunther.

Gunther’s photographs give great insight into how a desert garden can not only be robust but even lush. It’s Martino’s brisk and charming introduction, however, that provides the book’s greatest insight into the catalogued projects.

Martino came to landscape by way of architecture, which he studied at Arizona State University in the 1960s. It was through this education that Martino says he experienced a set of epiphanies.

The first epiphany was that landscape was mostly eyewash. A client could spend tremendous amounts of money and achieve a sub-par result.

Another was: why weren’t all architects also landscape architects? It seemed irresponsible to leave the site design to someone else. Martino pursued this instinct, working for architectural firms on their site designs.

And, lastly — as for the native desert plants he was told to avoid using — Martino suspected they held more potential than expected.

This suspicion was confirmed by Ron Gass, a nursery-owner with an encyclopedic knowledge of native desert plants, whom Martino holds in great esteem. Martino, out of a job at one point during the 1970s, went to work at Gass’ nursery and learned as much as he could.

In the meantime, Martino marketed himself as a designer of “outdoor space,” a term many of the architects he interviewed with found unnerving. Much like the desert gardens Martino wished to promulgate, outdoor space seemed an oxymoron.

Martino persisted and received opportunities to expand the use of desert plants in his work, “connecting a project to the adjacent desert.” Their use did much more, Martino soon realized. They lent his projects an ecological intelligence and environmental stability that only proved more prescient in the following decades.

baja garden
Many of Martino’s projects reinforce the connection between the garden and their larger landscape context, like this example from Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

Martino’s work often juxtaposes desert vegetation with architectural structures, a relationship he describes as “weeds and walls.” One such example is the Palo Cristi garden, where the heavy influence of architect Luis Barragán, as requested by the garden’s owners, can be seen. The simple, clean lines of Martino’s walls frame and complement spindly, spiky plants that seem like colorful guests at a garden party. Sun is a design material that Martino deploys or limits in turn.

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The Barragán-inspired walls of Palo Crisit Garden / The Monacelli Press

Martino often plays up the space demanded by desert vegetation — the effect is to put certain specimens on display. And sculptural works are used to reinforce the character of these plants. In the Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona, steel rebar evoking woody desert plants crowns a fireplace.

Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

In other instances of Martino’s work, the hand of the designer is adroitly hidden behind a more naturalistic planting scheme. The Greene-Sterling Garden, also in Paradise Valley, Arizona, features desert trees that were allowed to grow to the ground, much the way they would grow in their natural habitat. This also did away with the need for understory plants.

When Martino started out, he had to argue for the incorporation of environmental intelligence such as this into his design work. The ensuing decades have proved Martino right.

Why Smart Urban Design May Save Us from Natural Disasters and Address Social Justice


The stories of loss and destruction that have emerged from extreme weather events and natural disasters illustrate the catastrophic damage that American families are dealing with today.

The numbers are staggering. Last summer, Hurricane Harvey alone caused an estimated 32,000 to lose their homes in the metropolitan Houston area and as many as 82 deaths. Damages are expected to cost between $70 and $108 billion.

Yet not all families suffer equally from these calamities. In Louisiana, those seeking affordable living spaces find them in lower elevations. Low-lying areas are seen as less desirable and, therefore, less expensive. A prime example is New Orleans, which is almost entirely below sea level. When Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city in 2005, the lowest elevations received the most damage. And—no surprise—lower-income minorities lived there and saw the most damage.

Cities like Seattle and Atlanta are becoming more popular places to live, and the price of living there continues to increase. Poorer families, by necessity, get pushed to the outskirts of such cities — outskirts that happen to be located in vulnerable areas often close to industrial lands and cut off from the rest of the community. Physical barriers, which include highways and buildings, create a divide between the wealthier city areas and the poorer areas on the outskirts.

Smart urban design policies can help bring people together as one community—and protect their communities during times of calamity.

Relocating families to safer areas is one option. But it isn’t always the optimal choice. We must respect the deep and historic ties people have with their communities. Relocation would mean taking them away from their established homes.

One of the best solutions is rebuilding neighborhoods through sustainable design. We can use landscape architecture and creative urban design to adapt vulnerable areas to the natural habitat and changing climate conditions.

A great example are the 100 houses built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. These homes were built by the nonprofit Make It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit the worst by Katrina due to its geographic location. Through innovative, resilient design, families were able to return to live in safe housing in their already established communities.

Make It Right Foundation home / MusicforGood.tv

Areas not redeveloped for housing can be turned into parks or natural areas that also protect against natural disasters. To make either of these changes happen, communities need to call on their legislators and members of Congress. They can work with landscape architects to turn these locations into a bridge to bring together wealthy and low-income residents. This kind of unification will help us create a sustainable population.

Over the long term, something called “transactive design thinking” needs to take place—when citizen scientists, or community members who know the area the best, work with lawmakers to get an outcome that is appealing to everyone. Lawmakers must enact laws to create more sustainable areas. To come full circle, citizen scientists must be receptive to these changes and provide feedback to ensure their voice is being heard. They and their fellow community members must also agree with the reconstruction of their green spaces in order for it to be successful.

Recently, I had the pleasure of collaborating on a project to rebuild and transform land damaged during Hurricane Katrina and never restored. I worked with the Sankofa Community Development Corporation (SCDC), a local nonproject, to build the Sankofa Wetland Park.

Sankofa Wetland Trail and Nature Park / Sankofa CDC

SCDC founder Rashida Ferdinand, who is committed to creating an environmentally sustainable community, received a grant from New Orleans to transform two acres of a deteriorated natural area in the Lower Ninth Ward into an educational assimilated wetland park. This site provides the area with many environmental benefits, including restoring habitat for plants and animals as well as cleaning stormwater runoff. In time, we hope that the city sees the benefits of creating this wetland and will allow Ferdinand to expand her project into the intended full 40 acres of vacant land.

As the landscape architect, I visited the proposed site as the first step of our project. A citizen scientist from the neighborhood accompanied me–John Taylor, who has lived in the area his entire life. He not only helped me navigate through the land, but also showed me an underground water channel that I would have never known existed had he not been there.

This is a prime example of why landscape architects need to work with the local residents, who share their extensive knowledge of the area. Their voices ensure we build and rebuild in a way that’s not only right from an environmental and social equity perspective, but that’s also respectful of longstanding local communities.

Natural disasters may be increasing in frequency, but it’s not the number of disasters we should worry about. Instead we should focus on how each disaster continues to get more costly. Families are facing life-changing disasters and despite contrary belief, there are actions we can take to mitigate some of the damages that they face. We must call on policy makers, landscape architects, and communities that are affected the most to enact change.

To this end, the American Society of Landscape Architects has convened a Blue Ribbon Panel to get a jump start on making these changes a reality. In the first quarter of 2018, the panel will release comprehensive public policy recommendations for using resilient design to combat social injustices that occur when natural disasters hit. These recommendations are just the first step with many more to go. Learn more about how we’re developing policy recommendations to safeguard our cities and natural resources for the future.

This guest post is by Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, who has 30-plus years of experience in professional practice focusing on land planning and varied scales of open space and park design, including community development work. Jones Allen is currently the program director for landscape architecture at the college of architecture planning and public affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. She participated in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience held September 21-22, 2017.

Landscape Architecture in the Next Highlights (April 1 – 15)

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ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas / Thomas McConnell Photography

More Cities Are Banishing Highways Underground — And Building Parks on Top Stateline, 4/2/18
Cities looking to boost their downtowns, or to improve downtrodden neighborhoods, are creating ‘highway cap parks’ on decks constructed over freeways that cut through the urban center.“

Pittsburgh ‘Cap’ Park Plans to Honor Neighborhood History Next City, 4/3/18
“A new park in Pittsburgh will attempt to reconnect the Hill District to downtown, while striving to honor the past and future of this historically black neighborhood.”

Don’t Just Rebuild the Collapsed Pedestrian Bridge in Miami City Lab, 4/4/18
“It’s been three weeks since a pedestrian bridge that had been billed as an engineering feat collapsed over a busy Southwest Eighth Street in a Miami suburb, killing six motorists.”

Preservation-Minded Renovation of Halprin’s Freeway Park Moves Forward The Architect’s Newspaper, 4/10/18
“Even as SOM bulldozes Lawrence Halprin‘s Los Angeles atrium (the only atrium he ever designed), officials 1,000 miles to the north are gearing up to preserve Freeway Park, the eminent landscape architect’s highway-capping park in Seattle.”

Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander on Why It Should be Easier to be GreenWallpaper, 4/12/18
An early proponent of rewilding, community consultation, pedestrian-friendly accessibility and creative playgrounds for children, her projects span the globe from the Canadian embassy in Berlin, to The New York Times building, and Erickson’s Robson Square and Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.”

Point Cloud Models Uncloak the Hidden

According to Christophe Girot, point clouds instill panic in politicians and architects. They reveal and expose a city from all vantages, enabling one to move behind, around, and through the whole spectrum of the built environment. The backsides of buildings, a filthy alleyway, a secret roof garden—all are equal opportunity to the virtual visitor. Though this technology has been available for ten years, the only city whose entirety exists as a point-cloud model is Zürich, Switzerland. And why is that? “It’s not the cost or the big data,” says Girot, “but the fear of being unveiled.”

Girot, who is professor and chair of landscape architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), spoke at the college of environmental design at University of California at Berkeley on large-scale landscape design and modelling, investigating topological methods, and experimenting with new media.

The potential of his point-cloud modelling has been written about; this new vein of visualization is one which Girot is known for advancing. Though Girot did discuss the technology in his work, at this talk, he set point cloud models in the context of siting, clearing, and planting—components of the process inherent to landscape design, which centered his talk on the particularities of a site.

At the ETH, Girot and his team have garnered attention for point-cloud modelling of projects at the territorial scale. The technology is also relevant at the human scale, owing to the level of detail that it elucidates.

A precise engineering technology that is now used for modelling, the point-cloud model creates a depiction of the site by congregating billions of pixel points, all of which carry position information gleaned by drones, Lidar, and 3D-scanning.

As a viewer moves through the model, the minute points slowly push by you in a way that is less like you’re walking through the space than like you have become the camera floating through it, seemingly any detail available for close observation.

By sharing an abundance of information, the models evoke what it is like to be in a place. In spite of appearances, Girot asserts these models counter the “tech-y,” “plan-y,” and mapping-focused vein that dominates contemporary landscape architecture by bringing focus to the site.

For instance, Girot shared a series of garden models from Kyoto, which were created to illuminate the aural, visual, and textural qualities of each site (see video above and image below).

Sampling Kyoto Gardens / Christophe Girot

Interestingly, Girot calls the models “still-lifes.” This telling moniker illustrates what Girot wants the viewer to cull from the scene: the emphasis on detail, the attention to the haptic, and the ability to know the infinite variations of texture.

Beyond the capacities of the still-life—and equally important to Girot—is the model’s ability to disclose the place’s ambient sound. All of these details accumulate to a highly accurate version of the site’s sensory experience.

There are implications for the designer in point-cloud modelling: The information captured in a half-days’ worth of 3D-scanning can yield an infinite number of drawings and simulations that explain the site. “This is a mode of empowerment,” he said.

The exposure of so much detail can offer clarity, and can also uncloak the hidden—that which is concealed intentionally or not. And while he remarked that he did not want to mention politics, his insinuations about the power of this technology were made clear.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

For a New Cultural District, the Detroit Institute of Arts Seeks “Exceptional Design Flair”

Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) / Wikipedia

The Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) and Midtown Detroit Inc have launched a design competition to find a landscape architecture firm with “exceptional design flair” to create a new “DIA plaza,” which can better connect DIA with nearby institutions and form the basis for a coherent, accessible cultural district. Back from the brink of nearly having to sell its art holdings to pay off Detroit’s debtors, the DIA aims to remake its four-acre front plaza and grounds as a destination in themselves, perhaps like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s iconic grand staircase and fountains. They also want the designers to forge greater neighborhood connections through urban and landscape design, so visitors are encouraged to explore.

The current landscape around the museum doesn’t help the DIA achieve its goals. According to the design competition organizers, “The Wall Street Journal hailed the DIA as ‘the world’s most visitor-friendly museum’ in 2015. However, despite the success inside the museum, visitor experiences on the exterior spaces that surround the museum tell a different story. Potential visitors have described the exterior and grounds as ‘impermeable’ and ‘standing separate from our community.'”

Furthermore, there is a lack of connection with nearby institutions, which seem near in the map below, but Detroit’s blocks are very big. Educational and cultural institutions adjacent to the DIA include: the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Public Library, the Michigan Science Center, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.

Area to be considered in the design competition / Midtown Cultural Connections

The design team will be asked to create a “strong and innovative design vision that re-imagines the DIA’s grounds, making them highly visible, welcoming, flexible, and functional to support year-round outdoor programming.” Then, the team will be asked to extend this vision beyond the DIA through district-wide improved pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, way finding, public art, and parking.

Area to be considered in the design competition / Midtown Cultural Connections

The jury includes Salvador Salort-Pons, president of the DIA; landscape architect Julia Bargmann, ASLA, founder of D.I.R.T. Studio; and Maurice Cox, urban planning director for Detroit.

The competition will occur in three stages. Register by April 30, 2018.

In other Detroit landscape architecture news: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) just won a competition organized by Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to revamp the 22-acre Detroit West Riverfront Park, which is comparable in size to Maggie Daley Park in Chicago or Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. Award-winning architect David Adjaye joins the MVVA’s team. The conservancy’s goal is revitalize 5.5 miles of riverfront in Detroit. To date, some 80 percent of a three-mile segment is complete.

West Riverfront Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA)

MVVA’s models and renderings for the $50 million park will be on display in Detroit over the coming weeks. One model will be found in the Prentis Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts through May 6 and another will be found in the Wintergarden at the GM Renaissance Center through May 10.

In Madrid, a Green Circle in a Square

To mark the 400th anniversary of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, which was built during the reign of Phillip III, urban artist SpY temporarily transformed this hard urban place into a turf-covered green space. Over four days, some 100,000 Spaniards and tourists came to sit and chat on the circular lawn, simply named Cesped or Grass.

Cesped / SpY

According to Design Boom, the circle spans some 3,500 square meters, with a diameter of 70 meters. It’s a surprising new form for a space once used by Spanish Inquisitors to torture and execute heretics.

Cesped / SpY

SpY has done other intriguing projects using urban nature as a canvas. Grow in Besançon, France, involved pruning climbing vines into a circle. For SpY, these works demonstrate “an artist’s route through urban space.”

Grow / SpY

And SpY also playfully subverts security infrastructure. In another inventive project, Labyrinth in Ordes, Spain, the artist turned the steel barricades now-ubiquitous in cities into a fun puzzle. A parking lot temporarily became a maze kids can enjoy.

Labyrinth / SpY
Labyrinth / SpY

Ordinary materials plus design equals big impact.