The Ferns of Dumbarton Oaks in 3D

Sophia McCrocklin’s Ferns of Dumbarton Oaks / Sophia McCrocklin

“Why ferns? Because some are 350 million years old.” The world’s oldest living plants show the incredible resilience of nature’s best designs. Looking closely at ferns under a microscope, Washington, D.C.-based artist Sophia McCrocklin found that their “spores are in fact little springs,” perfectly engineered for propagation over the megaannums.

McCrocklin grew up in Kentucky. Appalled by coal companies strip-mining the landscape, she decided to fight them and became an environmental attorney. At the same time, McCrocklin explored her interest in fiber art and began showing in galleries and Ky Guild of Artists.

Her interest in ferns started about six years ago by chance. “I have always loved trees and had never thought about ferns. But I was on a hike one day in Rock Creek Park and had to go around a tree that had fallen. As I was scrambling around the log, I came face to face with a fern. It was winter and the fern was the only thing green out, so it caught my attention.”

She had been out in the forest looking for something to make in 3D, so when she got home she cut off a branch of a Boston fern in her house. She ended up replicating a stalk that was 3-4 inches long and showed people, but they were “not impressed.” She realized she needed to make a fern much larger so that people would notice it as much as they do a tree.

Ebony Spleenwort Fern / Sophia McCrockin

Someone told her that there were many types of ferns at Dumbarton Oaks Park (DOP) in Washington, D.C. Landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who designed the space as the naturalistic companion to the formal gardens above at Dumbarton Oaks, had planted 8 types, but there were also 7 others native to the area.

After speaking with DOP Conservancy staff, including landscape designer Ann Aldrich, the park’s resident plant expert, McCrocklin started to catalogue and investigate the ferns. She then decided to undertake a series of large-scale art works, organizing them into categories: Farrand’s ferns, other native ferns, and inspired ferns, which include some of her early explorations. She later became the park’s first artist-in-residence.

McCrocklin essentially photocopies the ferns and blows them up to a very large scale. She also looks at ferns under a microscope at the Smithsonian’s US Herbarium to ensure the details of the plant scale up accurately.

In Annapolis, McCrocklin purchased junk Dacron boat sails, a durable polyster material, for around $1 a pound. She cuts ferns out of the Dacron, sews them, and inserts copper wire to support the stalks and leaflets. Color is added through acrylic paint or pencils. Spores are made of anything from mustard seeds to beads of glass. The fuzzy parts of the ferns’ stems crafted from shredded canvas fiber or sometimes cotton. “I try whatever works.”

Grape Frond fern spores / Sophia McCrocklin
Interrupted Fern spores / Sophia McCrocklin
Roots of a Cinnamon Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

Each is then mounted on a heavy canvas board, or otherwise it would collapse. The canvas is painted with a cherry blossom pattern, reflecting how they can be seen in spring in Dumbarton Oaks Park.

Each fern takes about 6 months and is either 4.5 feet square or approximately 2.5 feet wide by nearly 7 feet tall.

Some are more challenging than others to engineer at large sizes. Sword ferns like the Boston or Christmas fern, which have one stalk with attached leaves, are relatively straightforward.

Christmas Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

Tassel ferns, on the other hand, are like small trees, with many branches, each with leaves. “They are very time consuming. If I had tackled tassel ferns in the beginning, I’m not sure I would have done this project,” she said, only half-joking.

Tassel Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

After spending many years with them, McCrocklin has grown to love ferns. By enlarging them and making them such tactile works, she wants to convey how important they are.

“We easily look up at big trees because they are magnificent and awe-inspiring. We rarely look down at ferns, but the loss of these plants and the forest’s understory is the canary in the coal mine.”

Sensitive Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

She said some areas of Maryland fence out deer. The result is a “dense and lush” understory. But in D.C., where deer roam, “there is just bare ground, which is bizarre.”

“I want to make people aware that the understory is vital to the health of the forest. People need to pay more attention to the little things, as they signal the condition of our ecosystems. A forest may look healthy if it is filled with trees, but trees are really the last to go.”

McCrocklin’s exhibition, which was to be free and open to the public in early April, has been cancelled due to COVID-19 and will be rescheduled for next spring or fall. Explore her work at her website and on Instagram.

Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, Take Time to Reconnect with Nature

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Re-envisioning Pulaski Park. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

If you are in a place impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, spending 20 minutes experiencing nature in a park, street, or even your backyard can significantly reduce your stress levels. Just be sure to follow federal, state, and local guidelines and maintain social distancing of 6 feet. But even if you cannot or are unable to go outside, taking a break by opening a window and looking at a tree or plant can also help de-stress.

After years of research, Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA — a landscape architect, ecologist, and professor at the University of Michigan — can state with confidence that just 20 minutes of experiencing nature has major benefits. Her findings, which were widely covered in the media last year, were published in the Frontiers of Psychology.

The Coronavirus pandemic — and all the financial, social, and emotional havoc it has wrecked — has only increased stress worldwide. “People are stuck inside, freaked out, and the news doesn’t get any better,” Hunter told me.

She explained that there are a few good ways to stop “ruminating and concentrating on bad stuff.” One way is to exercise. Another is to experience nature, which offers a “great way to take you away from whatever is on your mind.”

She recommended walking or sitting or looking closely at a tree, plant, bug, or animal. “Get rid of your tech — your smart phone — and actively pay attention to something in nature. The experience of nature is what is key. The intentional focus gets you the stress reduction faster.”

Everyone’s experience of nature may be different. It can be experienced on a trail or street, in a park or plaza, within a backyard, on a patio with some plants, or out a window. “You can also close your eyes and listen to birds or insects.”

Parks are particularly important though, because it is also a way to see other people from a safe distance. These green spaces have few metal or plastic surfaces where viruses can lurk.

As the pandemic hits New York City, the NYC parks and recreation department has made a point of keeping city parks open.

Mitchell J. Silver, NYC parks commissioner told The New York Times there are no current plans to close the parks. “I’m optimistic. It’s critically important to get fresh air, it builds the immune system. People are out using parks. Twenty minutes in the park reduces stress, anxiety. You see people doing that today, given the times we’re in.”

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

Hunter reiterated a point Silver made: that spending time in nature is critical to boosting our immune system, which is essential to staving off health problems. A study by University of Illinois researcher Ming Kuo showed that “good immune system function is linked to resilience.” Hunter added that nature also helps improve cognitive function — our ability to pay attention, which is so important given everything going on.

Hunter’s study had such an impact because it was the first nature-focused one to sample the cortisol levels of relatively large numbers of subjects repeatedly over long stretches of time. 37 subjects were tested three times a week over 8 weeks. “The repeated testing of each person gave a realistic assessment of the stress reduction capacity of a ‘nature pill’ under the conditions of daily life.”

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the summer, Hunter’s subjects were given a wide berth in defining and finding their own nature experiences. For some, it was taking a walk in the park; for others it was sitting under a tree. “The only criteria was that they felt a connection with nature — that’s it.”

She gave her subjects an app, which prompted them to go outside. Many of her subjects, which had considered themselves avid outdoors people, were dismayed discover they weren’t going outside as much as they had thought. The app also enabled them to take photographs of whatever nature they experienced that moved them.

Examining cortisol levels in the saliva samples, Hunter and her researchers sought to figure out “the magic point” at which experiencing nature starts to relax people. She found that 20 minutes registered a significant reduction in stress. From 20-30 minutes, people are experiencing the “greatest efficiency in stress reduction, the biggest bang for the buck,” so to speak. After 40 minutes, there is continued stress relief but at slower rates.

Hunter said she gets one question a lot: “What if I don’t have 20 minutes?” Her answer: Even if you don’t have that amount of time at once, taking smaller breaks of 5-10 minutes helps, too.

The pandemic shows how important it is to embed nature wherever possible along streets and in pocket parks, plazas, and courtyards. Those nearby-nature experiences become more critical given people’s increasing time constraints and restrictions in traveling to big urban parks or nature preserves.

Hunter’s research was sponsored by the TKF Foundation. Learn more about their investments in scientific evidence demonstrating the health benefits of nature.

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

Urban air mobility / NASA

Atlanta’s Leading Landscape Architect, 93, Still Drawing — 03/09/20, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Edward L. Daugherty, the dean of Atlanta landscape architects, has seen many cycles of growth and decay. He has survived enough seasons to view his own wintertime with a sanguine eye.”

NASA Partners with 17 Companies to Invest in the Future of Urban Air Mobility — 03/09/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The concept of the flying car has lived in the popular imagination ever since the Space Age of the 1950s, yet a recent initiative by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could make urban airborne travel more likely than ever in automotive history.”

‘We Are Not Alone’: Life Under Coronavirus Lockdown in Italy — 03/10/20, CNN
“I’m in Rome, and the streets are basically empty. Rome is pretty famous for traffic jams, but there are none at the moment, there is very little traffic. ”

Esri Sets Up COVID-19 GIS Hub — 03/13/20, Planetizen
“Esri, the California-based geographic information systems (GIS) company, has launched the online ‘COVID-19 GIS Hub’ with a number of useful tools for tracking information about the spread and mitigation of coronavirus disease around the world.”

On a Last Walk Through the National Gallery, I’m Reassured by Images of an Uncertain Future — 03/13/20, The Washington Post
“On Wednesday, when the coronavirus pandemic was rapidly shuttering museums and cultural venues across the country, I decided to take a walk through the National Gallery of Art. This wasn’t a goodbye walk, but more an auf weidersehen walk: Until we meet again.”

In São Paulo, A Street Becomes an Urban Living Room

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

How can a street encourage people to explore, play, and hang out? How can art, plants, and furniture be combined to create a sense of place? In São Paulo, Brazil, a design collaboration between Brazilian firm Zoom Urbanismo Arquitetura e Design and furniture designers at LAO Engenharia & Design shows how. All Colors Sidewalk draws people in with its funky, organic charm.

In ArchDaily, the firms tell us that most streets in this mega-city, with a population of 12 million, are “very narrow, with irregular or no maintenance, and present many obstacles that discourage the circulation of pedestrians through the city.”

Through their re-imagining of the street landscape, the firms sought to show what an accessible space rich with layers would look like.

Along the 4,500-square-foot street, what grabs attention first is the flexible, wood street bleachers, which offer seating at street level and then perches above. The firms arranged them to create different views for people sitting, and flexible options for groups hanging out. At certain points, the bleachers rise up and form an arbor; at others, they become aerial structures for plants.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

To eliminate flooding, which is a common problem in São Paulo, the design team married permeable pavers with street rain gardens. But they also made sure stormwater management didn’t impede accessibility. The team selected a permeable paver that is even and poses no obstacle for wheelchair users.

Furthermore, tactile signals in the pavement complement accessible signage, making the space open to blind pedestrians or those with low vision. There is also a map of the local transportation system and nearby points of interest.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

To break up the monotony of the long wall lining the street, the design team incorporated crocheted “graffiti” and hung leaves with words knitted in them, which adds to the homemade feel of the place.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko
All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

The project succeeds in creating a fresh landscape, a new sort of linear park. “We created the concept of [an] Urban Living Room: a furnished space where people are invited to sit, talk, wait, and rest — a living space in the middle of the city.”

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

Smart Lighting? Not So Fast!

Demonstrators pull down a smart lamppost during a protest in Hong Kong. / AP Photo/Kin Cheung

By Linnaea Tillett

Last summer, masked anti-government protestors in Hong Kong began tearing down light poles and gutting them, looking for facial recognition technology embedded alongside the Smart City WiFi and 5G. For the protestors, “smart” light poles, like a Trojan horse, represent the vanguard of mainland China’s surveillance state. Trust in what had previously been ignored as a boring, albeit useful, public utility had broken down.

While highly politicized in Hong Kong, there is a worldwide trend to embed Smart City data collection devices and surveillance technologies into street furniture. Some of these technologies, such as city-wide wireless internet and 5G cellular service, have great appeal while facial recognition technology and sensors that record conversations, track foot traffic or purchasing transactions remain controversial. Light poles play a key role in Smart City planning because their “perfect elevation,” strategic positioning, and complex wiring capabilities make them the ideal host for the new technologies.

Many in the international and American lighting industry are on board with this trend. They see the Smart City movement as an opportunity for the lighting industry to enter the data collection and analytics business, providing the industry with “the Holy Grail of all companies, recurring revenue.” As an editorial in LD+A, the journal of the lighting engineering world, put it last June: “Lighting IS a platform to gather information and process and analyze it at the edge where it is collected ….or pass it on to another location where it can be analyzed.”

Example of a more traditional post top lantern lamppost model designed for data collection. / Jeanne Choi, Tillett Lighting Design Associates
Example of a contemporary light column lamppost model designed for data collection. / Jeanne Choi, Tillett Lighting Design Associates

As lighting designers working in the public realm, we are very concerned. We have already witnessed the “frictionless” integration of data collection devices and surveillance technologies into new light pole designs at the private industry level in the U.S. This is proceeding rapidly without public knowledge, debate, or oversight. And in another worrisome new development, we have also seen tech giants offering these systems at little or no cost directly to municipalities, where fiscal deficits may make such offers irresistible. The priority accorded lighting in the design of nighttime public space may well be compromised by data collection and revenue generating.

As lighting designers, we believe the purpose and value of public lighting is its ability to create pleasing, social, intimate, safe nighttime experiences. We use our training and expertise to do that in cities across the country.

What — we ask ourselves — is a picnic at dusk or an evening turn at the dog run to feel like when the primary purpose of light poles is to house machine learning algorithms trained to recognize specific people, objects or behaviors? Will people still draw near the light they cast once they learn that their casual conversation is being captured day and night? And if the platform/data monopolies become the de facto suppliers of civic infrastructure, and lighting manufacturers morph into tech companies, what will become of the design of public lighting? Will it actually light our parks and plazas? Will the value of lighting design — its careful balance of function, aesthetics, ecological sensitivity, and the psychological and social needs of communities at night — become subservient to, or dismissed in favor of, the strategic needs of data collection?

As citizens, we support those institutions and individuals who are raising privacy concerns about the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and public housing developers, among others. As professionals, we need to urgently and loudly argue that the value of lighting in public space is its ability to foster public life at night rather than stand by as light poles are converted into a Swiss Army knife of technologies controlled by corporations whose motives are not civic-minded but financial.

We must be committed to transparency and argue for meaningful oversight and accountability. Giant tech companies and lighting manufacturers that promote friendly-sounding Smart City services embedded in strategically-placed light poles, need to be clear with us, our clients and communities about the type of granular data collection involved and for whose benefit it is being collected. If tech companies (or their avatars) offer “free” equipment to our clients in return for ownership of the data that they collect, we need to help our clients navigate the implications of such contracts so that the present and future implications for the community are clear.

While public lighting has always played a role in policing and other government-sponsored public safety measures, it is worth remembering that lantern smashing has been around just as long. During the French Revolution and other rebellions of the 19th century, lantern smashing was a popular movement, not to plunge areas into darkness, but because street lanterns had become symbols of a hated authority.

As the protestors in Hong Kong showed, street lighting – far from promising gentle evening experiences — can again become a hated symbol of corporate and governmental control of our public life.

This guest post is by Linnaea Tillett, PhD, founder and principal of Linnaea Tillett Lighting Design Associates. Tillett is a lighting designer, environmental psychologist, and public artist. She was on the faculty at The New School: Parsons School of Design for 15 years.

Make Your Place Even Better: AARP Community Challenge Grants

In Los Angeles’ Westlake/MacArthur Park neighborhood, Golden Age Park shows the power of placemaking. With support from AARP, a property that was vacant for 30 years was transformed by landscape architect Daví de la Cruz into a community garden with a children’s play area and outdoor fitness spaces for adults.

AARP is seeking applications for its annual Community Challenge grant program, which funds projects that improve livability. Now in its fourth year, the grant program has awarded 376 grants to non-profits and governments at all scales in every U.S. state, D.C., Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands.

For 2020, AARP is focused on projects that can: increase civic engagement and create a broader sense of community inclusion and diversity; create vibrant public spaces; and improve transportation and connectivity through walkability, bikeability, wayfinding, and universal access.

The organization, which has some 38 million members, is also looking for projects that can support accessible and affordable housing options. In addition, AARP is interested in projects that can “demonstrate the tangible value of ‘Smart Cities'” through programs that “engage residents in accessing, understanding, and using data, and participating in decision-making to increase quality of life for all.”

According to Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, the grant program is “a great fit for those who care about placemaking. About 60 percent of the 375+ grants made to date have been focused on public space and/or placemaking.”

Applications for Community Challenge grants will be accepted until 11:59 pm ET on May 15, 2020. All applications must be submitted through their website and all projects must be completed by November 9, 2020. AARP states that the program is open to 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), 501(c)(6) nonprofits and government entities. Other types of organizations will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Together with Team Better Block, AARP has just released the Pop Up Placemaking Tool Kit, which outlines the what, why, how of temporary but impactful placemaking demonstrations. Team Better Block has also included a set of pop up placemaking “recipes,” with beginner, intermediate, and advanced options, on their website.

According to the 40-page toolkit available for free to download and print: “when communities of all types (urban, suburban, rural) and sizes experiment and demonstrate solutions, the quicker their methods can be refined and positive change achieved.”

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

Chattahoochee RiverLands Greenway Study in Georgia / SCAPE

Landscape Architects Shift Emphasis to the Ecosystem, 02/22/20, AP News
“Landscape architects are finding themselves on the front lines of the climate change crisis, having to come up with creative ways to adapt and help mitigate problems like rising oceans and extreme weather as they design projects across the country.”

Houston Launches Multi-billion-dollar Resiliency Master Plan – 02/24/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed plans for a multi-billion-dollar initiative designed to prepare the city against future climate change-related disasters. The 186-page document, Resilient Houston, elaborates on methods the coastal city can adopt to become better prepared for future storms, sea-level rise, and the urban heat island effect.”

Fix for a Hated N.Y.C. Highway: How About an $11 Billion Tunnel? – 02/24/20, The New York Times
“Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle have all done it — razed hulking, unsightly highways dividing the heart of their downtowns, pushed a new roadway underground and turned the space above into an urban paradise. Could New York be next?”

Want to Grab a Late-Night Taco in Boston? The Neighbors Won’t Hear of It – 02/25/20, The Boston Globe
“El Jefe’s Taqueria founder John Schall is in a food fight with the City of Boston, and he doesn’t want it to play out quietly.”

Twitter for Urban Planning, 02/28/20, Planetizen
“Twitter is like all great cities: if you keep looking and figure out how to avoid a few key triggers, there are places and people for everyone. ‘Keep looking until you’ll find something you love,’ is a frequent saying about my home city of Los Angeles. The same is true of Twitter. The same is definitely true of Twitter, if what you love is planning.”