Listen to the Ecosystem; Design with Sound

There are three primary types of sound in our environments. There is geophony, which is the sound made by geophysical forces like rain, snow, rivers, ice, and cobble stones; biophony, which is the “sound of life,” including birds, frogs, and other animals; and anthropony, which is the “sound we make” through air conditioners, trains, and cars that creates a “low hum, like the base drum of the world.” In every soundscape, one component of sound dominates: NYC is clearly defined by its anthropony, while the Brazilian rainforest is one of the purest expressions of biophony. Soundscapes are the acoustic representations of a place and can be conserved, enhanced, or actively managed.

According to Chris Streb, an ecological engineer with Biohabitats, who presented at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, sound is also a “powerful component of placemaking.” Soundscapes can be analyzed, planned, and then designed.

“Our sense of hearing is often overlooked, but sound is critical. It’s our first sense in our mothers’ wombs — the sound of our mother’s voice.”

Humans can hear farther than they can see. Nature, in fact, privileges sound. “All higher vertebrate animals have hearing but not all have sight.” Without sound, many species, like birds, which rely on song to attract mates, wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Other species, like whales, even create “pop songs” that can go viral, spreading through their oceanic communities. “We think they create songs to impress their mates.” Predators rely on sound to capture prey, and prey use the same sense to evade being eaten.

In a world filled with Anthropogenic noise, “we are forgetting how to listen,” which is a shame because we can learn a great deal from hearing to the natural world. For example, if you listen carefully, you can tell the temperatures from the frequency of the chirps of the Snowy Tree Cricket (Oecanthus fultoni).

Through the noise we make, we are not only “interfering with our own experience of nature” but also nature’s ability to communicate. Frogs, for example, stop their chorus for up to 45 minutes after being disturbed by a “big noise.” Being silent for that long makes them more vulnerable to predators and also stops them from mating.

The health of an ecosystem can in part be determined by the sound it makes. The traditional method of analyzing the vitality of an ecosystem is to use jars and nets to capture fish, butterflies, birds, bats, and other critters. Another common approach is a Bioblitz in which a group of citizen scientists scour a given territory and count all species in a given time frame. The problem is these kinds of surveying are “very labor intensive, take lots of people, and also stressful on the animals themselves.”

Instead, a soundscape analysis conducted many times a day can be “worth a thousand pictures.” The depth and variety of sounds in an ecosystem can provide a metric for species density and diversity.

Streb showed a slide of an expanse of woods that had been recorded both before and after it was thinned out through logging. A base level was created to capture the sound of the stream and bird chatter, and then after the logging, recorded again. “The soundscape was totally different,” with a noticeable reduction in the amount of sound.

According to Lauren Mandel, ASLA, an associate and researcher at landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates, “soundscape mapping” can help landscape architects maximize geophonic and biophonic sounds humans and animals naturally gravitate to and minimize the anthroponic sounds that create a negative physiological response.

Working with Michael Mandel, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, who brought deep expertise in how to apply digital tools to measure the quantity and quality of sounds, Andropogon mapped the sounds of the 6,800-acre Shield Ranch in Austin, Texas, as part of a master plan that determined areas of development and preservation. One goal was to protect the the most vital ecological soundscapes while allowing anthroponic noise in areas that are already impacted by human sounds. Areas in red on the map had the largest amount of anthroponic noise.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. From Pixels to Stewardship: Advancing Conservation Through Digital Innovation. Andropogon, Austin, Texas / Andropogon

Michael Mandel said measuring the sound along the river and amid canyons of the ranch was challenging, as “sound travels in waves and ripples through the air, and when sound waves encounter a solid object, they bounce off, echo.” On a mountain top, for example, the case is “if you can see something, you can hear it.” But in other areas where echoes happen, “there are things you can hear but can’t see.”

And at the 2,500-acre Avalon Park & Preserve in Stony Brook, Long Island, which includes a diverse range of landscapes such as forests and tidal marshes, Andropogon also created a soundscape map that not only helped plan and design a new 7-acre park within the landscape, but also schedule public events and educational programs.

After a BioBlitz that identified the number of species at Avalon, Andropogon and their team set up audio recording devices to measure the type and decibel levels of natural and human sounds throughout the site. With sound meters purchased on Amazon.com, they conducted three readings a day in different locations. Andropogon also brought in local middle school and elementary school students to help with sound measurements. Older kids used a checklist while younger ones had a “visually-oriented form with images instead of words,” said Lauren Mandel.

While capturing decibels is useful, “getting measurements of sound quality is much more valuable.” Breaking the site into zones, Andropogon discovered the most pleasant sounding spaces were near meadows and forests, while the least pleasant next to a road crossing. The analysis led them to put a large sculpture, which was initially planned for a space in the woods, an area with a very high sound quality, in a place with a low sound quality. Visiting the sculpture is an anthroponic experience anyway and bringing high numbers of visitors into the woods would only degrade the sound quality there. Thoughtful efforts like these helped increase the biodiversity in Avalon by 35 percent.

Avalon Park & Preserve / Andropogon, Landscape Performance Series

Sound guided the program schedule for spaces, too. To avoid “sonic conflicts,” they didn’t organize yoga at the same time as lawn mowing or mechanical pruning. And they also scheduled programs for kids when birds were their at their noisiest. “We shifted the program based on sound.”

Mandel explained how urban soundscapes can also be managed. Designers can use buildings, walls, and trees to dampen sounds. Reducing urban noise in green spaces increases their habitat value. And audio recordings of birdsong can be added to spaces to help reduce the negative impacts of anthroponic noise.

Soundscape mapping can be done at the very large scale as well. Artificial intelligence is being programmed to listen to thousands of hours of recordings of Caribou and migrating birds made across millions of square kilometers of Alaska in order to analyze the ecosystem impacts of climate change or oil and gas exploration. The same systems can also be used to measure the effectiveness of ecological restoration efforts, explained Michael Mandel.

Artificial intelligence is already helping sound become a more mainstream species identification tool. Birdnet uses machine learning to help users identify what bird they have heard.

ASLA 2020 Conference on Landscape Architecture Call for Presentations

Miami Beach soundscape by West 8 / copyright Robin Hill

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is now accepting proposals for the 2020 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Miami, Florida, October 2 – 5, 2020.

The ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture is the largest gathering of landscape architects and allied professionals in the world—all coming together to learn, celebrate, build relationships, and strengthen the bonds of our incredibly varied professional community.

We seek education proposals that will help to drive change in the field of landscape architecture and solve everyday challenges informed by research and practice.

Help us shape the 2020 education program by submitting a proposal through our online system by Thursday, January 23, 2020 at 11:59 p.m. PT.

More than 100 education sessions and field sessions will provide attendees with the opportunity to earn professional development hours under the Landscape Architecture Continuing Education System™ (LA CES™). Many of the sessions will also qualify for continuing education credit with the Green Building Certification Institute (toward SITES AP and LEED AP credential maintenance), the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Certified Planners, and other allied professional organizations and state registration boards.

Education session speakers selected from this process will receive a full complimentary registration to the 2020 Conference on Landscape Architecture.

To coordinate proposals and network with potential speakers, we encourage you to use the Call for Presentations Google group.

Please visit the submission site to learn more about criteria, the review process, and key dates.

Submit your session proposal today.

This post is by Katie Riddle, ASLA, director of professional practice at ASLA.

Using Tarot Cards to Understand the Spirit of Place

Fairy Hills of Scotland / Elizabeth Boults

“The idea that big data will be the generator of design in the future is very depressing,” said Elizabeth Boults, ASLA, a landscape architect and educator, at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego. She instead called for “alternative methods that incorporate a more spiritual perspective.”

With her husband Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, who is a passionate proponent for honoring and designing with the unseen forces that shape landscapes, Boults outlined how one method that sounds a bit woolly at first — tarot cards — can actually be a thoughtful design tool for understanding the genus loci (spirit of place), which is so central to landscape architecture.

Boults believes that landscape architecture is a mix of art and science. Art relates to the “mysterious, non-linear, subjective” process of design, while science is about “rational structures, categories, and typologies.”

Beyond art and science though, there is also the spiritual aspect of landscapes. “Across cultures, people shape landscapes based on their beliefs.” Many cultures have had “gods and goddesses who are guardians of the spirit of places.” For example, Romans believed each home had a genius, who were honored through a shrine.

Roman shrine to the genius of the home / Household Gods by Alexandra Sofroniew

Prehistoric peoples were attuned to the “atmosphere, the flora, animal life, and geological formations; they listened to the trees, wind, and moon.” Boults wondered: “Are we still listening today?”

Enduring ancient beliefs are still alive and well in modern practices such as Feng Shui in China, Vastu Shastra in India, and landscape cosmologies among Native people and across many cultures. Within these cultural approaches to the landscape, it’s always important to “consult the genus loci of a place before starting a design process.”

Sullivan then steered the lecture towards the use of tarot cards, which he had previously “never paid attention to.” But then one day he began to wonder, “what are they about? When we have our cards read, what are we putting our value in?”

Examining historical and contemporary decks, he discovered they are “all about the landscape,” with their “Pre-Raphaelite imagery that compresses natural information.”

Antique Italian tarot card deck / Elizabeth Boults

During a studio project with his students to define core landscape design principles, he discovered what they were creating were essentially tarot cards, depicting sacred archetypal elements like the tree of life, the enchanted forest, the well. His students then began using the tarot decks in order to actively divine new designs; the result were “amazing.”

Like conventional decks, the genus loci tarot laid out core elements such as “the journey of the hero, the call to adventure, facing trials and tribulations, finding resolution, crossing the threshold, and achieving enlightenment.” Sullivan believes people are attracted to tarot cards because they depict life as a journey.

He also believes it’s no coincidence that tarot cards and mysticism are so popular in highly creative Silicon Valley, which is home to companies like Oracle (another sacred symbol).

In the last third of what was one of the most unusual and fun ASLA conference sessions ever, Sullivan and Boults offered glue, collage materials, watercolors, pens, and index cards so that attendees could create tarot cards depicting their own conception of genus loci.

Genus loci tarot card / Edith Drcar
Genus loci tarot card / Fred Ogram
Genus loci tarot card / Jessamyn Lett

Two attendees from different parts of the room realized they drew the nearly-exact figure of a wellspring, the source of life, showing that natural archetypes remain real in our disconnected digital world.

Best Books of 2019

The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press
The Tree Book / Timber Press

Whether you are looking for the perfect gift for your favorite landscape architect or an immersive read for yourself, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2019, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:

The Architecture of Trees and The Tree Book: Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Gardens
Princeton Architectural Press, 2019, and Timber Press, 2019

These are two useful and beautiful books on how to design with trees. The Architecture of Trees — first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982 and now reprinted in 2019 — features 212 trees species depicted through 550 intricate quill-pen illustrations, each drawn to 1:100 scale. The Tree Book, written by arboreal guru Michael A. Dirr and Keith S. Warren, director of product development for the tree nursery J. Frank Schmidt and Son Co., includes images, botanical and common names, and the range and climate adaptability of some 2,400 species and cultivars. Read the full review of The Architecture of Trees.

An Atlas of Geographical Wonders / Princeton Architectural Press

An Atlas of Geographical Wonders: From Mountaintops to Riverbeds
Princeton Architectural Press, 2019

This vivid collection of comparative maps and tableaux from the 19th century, organized by French researchers Jean-Christophe Bally, Jean-Marc Besse, Phillipe Grande, and Gilles Palsky, show how explorers, scientists, and artists imagined fantastical landscapes in order to better understand the true scale of the natural world. Their drawings and paintings laid the foundation for today’s geographical data visualizations.

A New Coast / Island Press

A New Coast: Strategies for Responses to Devastating Storms and Sea Level Rise
Island Press, 2019

Jeffrey Peterson, who was recently senior advisor responsible for climate change policy at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s office of water, has written a comprehensive new national policy approach to dealing with sea level rise, a roadmap for reforming the U.S.’s broken flood insurance system and steering development away from increasingly risky coastal areas.

Choked / University of Chicago Press
Clearing the Air / Bloomsbury Sigma

Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution and Clearing the Air: The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution
Bloomsbury Sigma, 2019, and University of Chicago Press, 2019

At the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Gina McCarthy argued that telling the story of the dangerous health impacts of climate change will motivate greater public action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution, which causes the premature death of 7 million people worldwide each year, will only worsen with climate change. As Tim Smedley explains in Clear the Air and Beth Gardiner in Choked, the solutions to the climate and air pollution crises are largely the same: renewable power, clean cook stoves, electric vehicles, and green infrastructure.

Design with Nature Now / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Design with Nature Now
Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2019

Design with Nature Now is an accessible and well-designed companion book to the University of Pennsylvania’s Design with Nature Now symposium and exhibition, which marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s seminal book Design with Nature. Edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, Richard Weller, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, and Billy Fleming, ASLA, this collection of essays and projects should inspire any environmental policymaker, planner, or landscape architect to forge broader coalitions and act regionally and globally to save our fragile ecosystems and protect the future of humanity.

Designing a Garden / The Monacelli Press

Designing a Garden: Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Monacelli Press, 2019

Designing a Garden, written by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, is a lucid and candid examination of the process of designing and constructing a single intimate project. Van Valkenburgh intends the book as a sort of how-to guide to landscape design, not unlike a cookbook in terms of detail and clarity. Read the full review.

Planting the Natural Garden / Timber Press

Planting the Natural Garden
Timber Press, 2019

An expanded and updated new edition of a now-classic book that launched the New Perennials movement, fundamentally changing landscape design. Edited by Noel Kingsbury, the book features the works and writings of High Line plant designer Piet Oudolf and late plantsman and designer Henk Gerritsen.

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide / Penguin Press

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Penguin Press, 2019

Journalist Tony Horwitz’s book on Frederick Law Olmsted is difficult to classify. It is a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted and a history of his America. It is also reportage from rural America and a thoughtful reflection on our times. Read the full review.

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16 – 30)

Anaheim,California,USA._-_panoramio_(1)
View down Main Street USA at Disneyland / Photo Credit: Roman Eugeniusz [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Walter Hood Digs DeepArchitectural Digest, 11/18/19
“The Oakland, California–based landscape designer, fresh off a string of prestigious design prize wins, has an approach that embraces the eccentricities of people and place.”

Podcast: Culture and Race Within Landscape ArchitectureAuthentic F&F, 11/18/19
“Listen to Ujijji discuss how she aims to promote change through landscape architecture, urban design, and an awareness of African American history across landscapes.”

10 Questions: Napa Landscape Architect Makes The Outside Look Sharp – Napa Valley Register, 11/19/19
“Susan Heiken said one of the best things about being a landscape architect is that “you are always learning something new.”

New Renderings Show 72,600-square-foot Public Park Coming to Brooklyn’s Pacific Park Development – 6sqft, 11/19/19
“Developer TF Cornerstone this week released new renderings for two sites within Brooklyn’s long-delayed Pacific Park development that have yet to break ground: 615 and 595 Dean Street.”

Dreaming Up Disneyland – The New York Times, 11/25/19
“Those who knew Walt Disney often described him as an uncomplicated man of conventional 20th-century sensibilities: a lover of model trains, farm animals, lunch-wagon food, hard work, evening belts of scotch and endless Chesterfield cigarettes. One of his rituals upon coming home from his movie studio was feeding his poodle, Duchess, a cold frankfurter, or “wienie,” by leading her from room to room while throwing pieces on the floor.”

Prospect Park Tackles Toxic Algae Blooms With Nature-Based Technology – Gothamist, 11/26/19
“For years people have walked by NYC’s urban lakes and ponds without knowing what the green stuff in the water really is. But dog owners in Prospect Park may know all too well: It’s toxic algae bloom.”

How to Reintegrate the Homeless into Their Communities

UrbanAlchemy
Urban Alchemy practitioner / Urban Alchemy

A survey of homeless individuals by Downtown Streets Team yielded one overwhelming response: they felt completely ignored as human beings. At the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, Brian Elliott, policy analyst for San Diego Councilmember Chris Ward; Brandon Davis with the California-based Downtown Streets Team; and Lena Miller with Urban Alchemy, discussed strategies to reintegrate homeless individuals into their communities, ranging from top-down policy decisions to empowering local unsheltered populations through employment options.

California is ranked number 1 in homelessness, with nearly 130,000 homeless individuals, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and numbers only continue to rise.

Elliott expressed a commitment to reduce the number of unsheltered people in San Diego County, which he cited as at least 4,476 people, nearly 55 percent of the at least 8,100 homeless residents of San Diego County. Councilmember Ward is the chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, an “integrated array of stakeholders committed to preventing and alleviating homelessness.”

Dispelling myths about who the homeless was paramount to all three speakers, but Elliott highlighted that in San Diego, the cause is primarily economic. He noted that “a hospital bill they could not pay, a utility bill they could not pay, balanced with housing, especially in a high-cost market with low vacancy rates, leads to homelessness.”

The City of San Diego unanimously passed the Community Action Plan on Homelessness, a body of policy focused on helping the existing homeless population, preventing future homelessness, and ensuring that homelessness is an experience that is brief and non-recurring. Davis made clear that “homelessness is an experience, not an identity.”

The plan looked at three short-term goals to be achieved in three years: end youth homelessness; end veterans homelessness; and decrease unsheltered homelessness by 50 percent. Building community and state level buy-in is central to achieving these goals. As can be seen below, veterans homelessness spreads across generations.

Veterans.jpg
2018 We All Count Survey / Regional Task Force on the Homeless

The first step of the plan calls for transitioning away from using the police as a first point of contact and instead reaching out to social workers. In order to combat the housing issue, the city council has committed to at least 140 new units of permanent support housing in all 9 council districts to be built over two years. To achieve this, Elliott encouraged landscape architects to continue to design for everyone, not specific populations.

Miller started Urban Alchemy in 2018. The organization birthed out of Hunter’s Point Family, an earlier non-profit Miller founded that focused on public housing.

Miller became interested in public toilets, specifically their importance in ensuring the dignity of the homeless, but also their potential for jobs. The organization has created 24 safe and clean public toilets in Tenderloin and other parts of San Francisco with high homeless populations and given homeless individuals jobs cleaning and maintaining those toilets, BART stations, the Civic Center area, downtown streets, and parks.

Urban Alchemy works with long-term offenders, integrating them back into society in order to prevent them from experiencing homelessness. Miller pointed to their high levels of emotional intelligence, their ability to read people, and their ability to interact with different kinds of people. All of these skills help them to establish and maintain social norms in the public places they work.

Urban Alchemy practitioner / Urban Alchemy

The police are brought in to offer deescalation training, helping to establish a relationship between law enforcement and employees of Urban Alchemy. Miller said this “transforms the paradigm of how the police see us, and how everyone in society sees us.”

Miller noted how the work provides not only an income but also a sense of pride, remarking on an anecdote where one employee called the Governor of California into a bathroom stall he had just cleaned to show him how clean it was.

Urban Alchemy saved 85 lives in 2018, through Narcan deployment, which brings back people from drug overdoses, and providing water to dehydrated people.

Downtown Streets Team employs local homeless populations to clean community spaces in San Jose and San Francisco. Instead of an hourly wage, they offer a non-cash basic-needs stipend, case management, employment services, and a support network within their community. The program offers people who have been out of work for a few years a platform to build their resume and eventually re-enter the workforce.

Volunteers wear bright yellow shirts, denoting them as members of the community and part of the Downtown Streets Team. The simple action of donning a yellow shirt and cleaning the community restores their dignity as people and members of their community.

Downtown Streets Team.jpg
Downtown Streets Team yellow volunteer shirt / Downtown Streets Team

The marginalization of homeless individuals often leads them to ignore the social norms of public space. Including them as part of the community helps ensure norms are met.

Each Tuesday, Downtown Streets Team hosts a town hall where people can participate in public life, share in each other’s successes, and be together. For Davis, “we are all here to hold each other accountable to be our better selves.”

To date, Downtown Streets Team has secured over 1,900 jobs and homes for people.

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

1920px-Freeway_Park_Seattle
Freeway Park, Seattle, Washington / Photo Credit Brianc333a [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Seattle’s Brutalist Freeway Park is Reviewed for National Register and Approved for RenovationThe Architect’s Newspaper,11/5/19
“The gorgeously staggered concrete elements of Jim Ellis Freeway Park, one of the most significant architectural spaces in Seattle, are scattered across a thickly forested hill atop an intersection of Interstate 5 between the neighborhoods of Downtown Seattle and First Hill.”

East Baltimore Redevelopment Project Moves Forward As Construction Begins The Baltimore Sun, 11/7/19
“With construction of the first building in an $889 million revitalization project in East Baltimore already underway, developers and architects have presented city officials the latest design plans for another building.”

Presidio Tunnel Tops Project Kicks Off With Pelosi In Attendance, Completion Due in 2021SFist, 11/7/19
“The official ‘groundmaking’ ceremony was held Thursday to kick off the process of building and landscaping what will create 14 acres of parkland over the top of the 101 freeway tunnels near the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting the Presidio to Crissy Field.”

Parkside Project Created to be ‘Uniquely Birmingham’ AL.com, 11/7/19
“The Powell Avenue Steam Plant powered Birmingham’s growth for more than a century. Now an ambitious plan hopes to resurrect it to connect a revitalized Magic City.”

Fall in Storm King Washington Square News, 11/15/19
“But despite the trek, there is an incredible institution upstate that will be worth your time: the Storm King Art Center.”