ASLA Earns Health and Wellness “WELL Certified Gold” Label for its D.C. Center for Landscape Architecture

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture,  with front canopy, Washington, D.C. / Halkin Mason Photography, courtesy of ASLA

By David Jeffrey Ringer

It’s the first Gold certification in Washington, D.C., and largest project in the capital to receive a human wellbeing-focused WELL Certification

ASLA has been awarded WELL Certification at the Gold level for its Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington, becoming the first WELL Certified Gold-rated project in Washington and the largest WELL Certified project to date in the nation’s capital. The prestigious WELL Certification is awarded by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) through IWBI’s WELL Building Standard (WELL), which is the premier building standard to focus on enhancing people’s health and well-being through the buildings where we live, work and play.

“ASLA pursued WELL Certification because of our commitment to our members, our staff and our community, and we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen. “ASLA is founded on the premise that good design leads to healthier, more sustainable and equitable environments, and we are grateful for the opportunity to partner and lead in advancing initiatives like the WELL Building Standard.”

Created through seven years of rigorous research and development working with leading physicians, scientists, and industry professionals, the WELL Building Standard is a performance-based certification system that marries best practices in design and construction with evidence-based scientific research. The ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture earned the distinction based on seven categories of building performance: Air, Water, Light, Nourishment, Fitness, Comfort and Mind.

ASLA worked with architecture firm Gensler and landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden to build a new Center that embodies the values of the profession and the organization.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture ground floor exhibition space / Halkin Mason Photography, courtesy of ASLA

The project integrates new construction into the existing space and footprint; captures and reuses stormwater runoff; maximizes daylight within the space; increases occupant comfort and wellness; provides flexible, collaborative work spaces; and models environmental values, with a focus on improving indoor air quality, lighting, nourishment, and promoting active lifestyles.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / Halkin Mason Photography, courtesy of ASLA

To ensure opportunities for interaction with living things and natural surroundings, a biophilia plan describes how the Center incorporates nature through environmental elements, lighting, and space layout.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / Halkin Mason Photography, courtesy of ASLA
ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / Halkin Mason Photography, courtesy of ASLA

Project features that helped ASLA achieve its WELL Certified Gold rating include:

  • A range of air-quality steps, including filtration, increased ventilation, and volatile organic compound reduction;
  • Optimal water quality through the use of filtration techniques and periodic water quality testing;
  • Enhanced natural lighting for all occupants through the creation of an atrium, circadian lighting design and low-glare workstation design;
  • Fitness opportunities that promote active lifestyles; and
  • Materials and furnishings selections that optimize comfort and cognitive and mental health and that evoke nature in their design.

WELL is grounded in a body of evidence-based research that explores the connection between the buildings where we spend approximately 90 percent of our time, and the health and well-being impacts on the people inside these buildings. To be awarded WELL Certification by IWBI, the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture underwent rigorous testing and a final evaluation carried out by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which is the third-party certification body for WELL, to ensure it met all WELL Certified Gold performance requirements.

ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture / Halkin Mason Photography, courtesy of ASLA

The ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture has long been committed to innovative design features that promote health and wellness and environmental sustainability. The Center features a green roof, one of the first of its kind built in 2005; a green canopy; a side garden designed by Oehme van Sweden, which includes a 700-gallon rainwater cistern used for irrigation.

ASLA Green Roof / EPNAC
ASLA Green Roof / EPNAC
ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture side garden, with cistern / Halkin Mason Photography, courtesy of ASLA

Numerous lines of research demonstrate the mental and physical benefits of green space for people, which is one of the reasons landscape architects seek to integrate high-quality green space into office environments.

New Public Art Gives Soul to the 11th Street Bridge Park

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

In a few years, the 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River, finally realizing the ambitious vision to bring both sides of Washington, D.C. together through art, landscape architecture, and a shared commitment to equitable development. As the project nears final design and the construction process is set to begin, four new works of public art were commissioned by a team of local residents, landscape architects, and public art curators. According to Scott Kratz, senior vice president, Building Bridges Across the River and director of 11th Street bridge park project, these art works “help embellish the park’s soul and ensure it will be reflective of the community.”

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

Through over a thousand public meetings about the bridge park, the team, which includes landscape architecture firm OLIN and architecture firm OMA, heard that residents want to see public art integrated into the project. “For us, public art is a key strategy for amplifying the voice of the community,” Kratz said.

The team that selected the artworks included a local high school student, an 82-year-old nearby resident, OLIN, OMA, Forecast Public Art, and D.C.-based artist Irfana Jetha Noorani.

OLIN and OMA were also engaged early in the process to ensure the public art works would be “deeply integrated” into the bridge. “We didn’t want to just do plop art,” Kratz said. The design team worked closely with the artists to site the works and will continue to partner with them on design, installation, and maintenance.

The bridge park team only accepted submissions from artists with D.C. area connections. Out of 60 entries, four women artists from the D.C. area were selected. Each artist received a stipend for their submissions and then will receive an additional $15,000 – $50,000 to create and install the work.

Baltimore artist Becky Borlan created Biophilia, a 10-foot wide disc comprised of “overlapping mirrored cut-outs” inspired by the “native and non-native plant life” that grows along the Anacostia River edge. “Despite hundreds of years of human intervention, this wild flora continues to populate the banks of the Anacostia,” Borlan said. “I am fascinated by its resilience and the multitude of forms that these plants embody.” The disc will be installed under the bridge, near the Anacostia side, and be lit at night.

Biophilia by Becky Borlan / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Biophilia by Becky Borlan / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

Mickey Demas and Nicole Bourgea’s mural Our Land will be found at the Navy Yard entrance wall and will reflect the “heritage of those living on and caring for DC’s land,” featuring members of the “native Piscataway Tribe among a field of tobacco plants, which hold historical and spiritual significance for the Tribe, and Ward 8 farmer, JJ Boone, propagating a native Paw Paw tree.”

Bourgea explained that “Our Land is a recognition of the people who have cared and are still caring for the land where the Bridge Park will be constructed.” “It is also a welcome to all communities to enjoy and protect our precious natural resources,” Demas added.

Our Land by Mickey Demas and Nicole Bourgea / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Our Land by Mickey Demas and Nicole Bourgea / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

At the peak of the span, OLIN and OMA designed a Hammock Grove, where visitors can enjoy views of the city and river.

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

There, the actual hammocks will be designed by D.C.-based artists Aliana Grace Bailey, Rhea Beckett, and Syreeta C. “Each hammock and its posts will boast a unique collage design honoring a theme, story, or place relevant to the city’s culture,” the bridge park team writes.

Hammock mock-up by Liz Faust / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

Syreeta C explained that “current residents already understand the value here. They need not be effaced.” Bailey said: “Our goal is for DC natives to feel seen. While community engagement enriches our process, we want to ensure that priority is also felt through the end product long-term.” “Our approach would preserve and reflect the District’s vibrancy and Black culture as mass development efforts persist,” Beckett added.

Syreeta C / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Aliana Grace Bailey / Danielle Finney, courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Rhea Beckett / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

An additional Small Business Kiosk by The River East Design Center (REDC) will serve as a “multi-functional mobile unit” that supports the park’s comprehensive equitable development plan, which leverages the park development as a tool for local jobs creation, business development, and home ownership, and has resulted in more than $86 million in support to the surrounding community and $3.5 million in direct cash payments during the height of the pandemic.

A prototype of the mobile unit will be tested at the Anacostia River arts festival that the bridge park team organizes annually, Kratz explained. “The kiosk will help build a pipeline of Black entrepreneurs in the creative economy ready to engage when the park opens in early 2025,” the bridge park team notes.

Small Business Kiosk by The River East Design Center (REDC) / Anna McCorvey, courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Small Business Kiosk by The River East Design Center (REDC) / Anna McCorvey, courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

Earlier this year, the bridge park team announced a $400,000 commission — Anacostia’s Sunrise/Sunset Portals — by D.C.-based artists Martha Jackson Jarvis and Njena Surae Jarvis of Jackson Jarvis Studio, which will be sited near the Anacostia bridge landing. “The notion of energy and rhythm of a capillary wave as it moves across the river brings light, color, and reflection into the landscape and into the Anacostia community,” said Martha Jackson Jarvis.

Anacostia’s Sunrise/Sunset Portals / Jackson Jarvis Studio, OLIN, OMA

Future exhibition spaces are already being planned for the bridge cafe along with performances in the amphitheater, which is located on the landing on the Anacostia side of the bridge. Learn more about the near-final designs of the bridge park.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16-30, 2022)

Umekita Park / Umekita 2nd Project Developers

GGN’s Design for Umekita Park in Osaka, Japan Is Under Construction – 06/27/2022, Archinect
“Seattle-based landscape architecture firm GGN’s design for an urban park in Osaka, Japan is now under construction. This public/private collaboration is focused on creating sustainable urban public spaces and ecosystems that realize quality of life improvements for residents and visitors to Osaka, Japan.”

Redesign Around Notre-Dame to Keep Tourists Moving and Lower Temperatures – 06/27/2022, New York Times
“The redesign envisions removing fencing to extend and merge parks around Notre-Dame, making neighboring streets more pedestrian-friendly and planting over 30 percent more vegetation in the area, including trees to provide additional shade.”

Where Did All of the Public Benches Go? – 06/27/2022, Arch Daily
“The design and functionality of public spaces in cities are always under scrutiny. But now a new issue and one that lives at a smaller scale is starting to arise- where did all of the public seats go?”

From Water Squares to Tidal Parks: Meet the Dutch Architects Redesigning Cities for Water – 06/24/2022, Fast Company
“At the core of De Urbanisten’s practice is the belief that landscape architecture can help mitigate climate change by moving away from obsolescent drainage systems and toward more natural approaches like rain gardens and permeable surfaces.”

California’s Largest Reservoirs at Critically Low Levels – Signaling a Dry Summer Ahead – 06/24/2022, The Guardian
“California’s two largest reservoirs are at critically low levels, signaling that the state, like much of the US west, can expect a searing, dry summer ahead.”

The Living City: Weaving Nature Back Into the Urban Fabric – 06/23/2022, Yale Environment 360
“Urban ecologist Eric Sanderson focuses on the natural history of cities. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why recovering and restoring streams, salt marshes, and woodlands should be a vital part of how cities adapt to climate change in the 21st century.”

He’s Turning Dodger Stadium into a World-Class Garden, One Native Plant at a Time – 06/23/2022, Sunset Magazine
“It took five years for Perea and his crew to wholly reimagine and replant the hillsides and concrete planters, and meet the requirements for official accreditation from Botanic Gardens Conservation International. But today, the former hodgepodge of geraniums and petunias, ivy and lantana is now home to dozens of California natives, dotted with succulents, complete with a ‘tequila garden’ brimming with spiky agaves.”

Climate-related Flooding and Drought Expected to Impact Millions of People and Cost World’s Major Cities $194 Billion Annually – 06/22/2022, C40 Cities
“C40 Cities has revealed new research quantifying the dire impacts of climate-driven drought and flooding on the world’s largest cities and its residents.”

Designer Julia Watson on Reaching the Age of the Symbiocene – 06/16/2022, Metropolis
“[Watson’s] 2019 book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, spotlighted nature-based infrastructures that have been honed over millennia, from the Living Root Bridges of the Khasis people in India to the floating island homes of the Ma’dan in Iraq, made from qasab reeds. As the creative world searches for planet-positive design solutions in the face of climate change, the book shows they have existed for centuries but have been overlooked.”

HGA and Nelson Byrd Woltz Complete Design Refresh at Monticello’s Burial Ground for Enslaved People – 06/16/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated mountaintop plantation was designed and inhabited by the third president of the United States from 1770 until his death in 1826. The Burial Ground serves as a final resting place for an estimated 40 enslaved African people who lived and toiled on the (originally) 5,000-acre plantation, cultivating tobacco and later wheat.”

A New Vision for the U.S. National Arboretum Melds Art and Science

National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Somehow, the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. remains under the radar despite attracting more than 700,000 visitors a year. Far on the east side of the city, it’s not accessible via the Metro and can feel treacherous to reach by bike or on foot. But a recent framework plan developed by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand promises to make the 451-acre treasure, which includes more than 29,000 plants of scientific value, a more accessible and valued place.

The only part of the U.S. Agriculture Research Service’s 94 research stations open to the public, the U.S. National Arboretum was formed through an Act of Congress in 1927 and opened to the public in 1959. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed a law appropriating $300,000 to buy land, including Mt. Hamilton, the site’s 230-foot peak. Additional land purchases made in the 1930s and 1940s brought the research facility to its current size. The Arboretum now borders the diverse, gentrifying communities of Gateway, Ivy City, and Carver/Langston.

U.S. National Arboretum 1937 Map / U.S. National Arboretum

In 2019, Reed Hilderbrand finalized work on their new framework plan, which won the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). The plan was financed by the Friends of the National Arboretum, which is now raising funds to implement aspects of the plan along with a new National Bonsai & Penjing Museum for which Reed Hilderbrand also created design concepts.

In a tour of the arboretum as part of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)‘s free What’s Out There public tours, Doug Reed, FASLA, a founding principal at Reed Hilderbrand, and Richard T. Olsen, Ph.D, director of the arboretum, interwove stories about the research center’s design and scientific legacies with hopeful visions for its future.

Over a glass of white wine at the visitor center, Olsen set the stage, explaining how the arboretum has played an important role in the history of landscape architecture and scientific research into the plant world.

Looking out at the garden where landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden is said to have invented the New American Garden style, which is characterized by artful layers of native plants, in the 1980s, Olsen said “this idea of focusing on American perennials in garden design” hadn’t existed before.

Another more recent garden adjacent to the visitor center by landscape architects Claudia West, Intl. ASLA, and Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-founders of Phyto Studio and co-authors of the influential book Planting in a Post-Wild World, further advanced contemporary ecological garden design. “Their garden is designed to take care of itself; the plants are allowed to move around. It’s a scientific planting design rooted in ecosystem knowledge,” Olsen said.

Fascinating tidbits like these are largely lost to the millions of visitors to D.C. each year, because the arboretum isn’t on their must-see list. “When I take a taxi to the arboretum from Reagan National Airport, I have yet to meet a driver who knows where the arboretum is,” Reed rued.

U.S. National Arboretum in relation to the National Mall / Reed Hilderbrand

“Our goal with the framework plan is to make the arboretum much better known, to open up the space to the public. There are unique ecological systems but also cultural aspects. It can be a marriage of science, art, and, nature.”

As we boarded the tour trolley, Olsen explained how in 1953 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service was formed, and the arboretum became part of this system. In addition to teaching visitors about trees, the arboretum is also a scientific research facility that supports the ornamental tree industry. For example, Olsen said a “third of all crepe myrtles sold in the U.S. are arboretum introductions or derived from them.”

The Arboretum is essentially a living museum. The seeds of many trees like Oaks and Magnolias can’t be stored in drawers or freezers for long-term, so instead the Arboretum must keep the tree DNA intact in live trees. Visitors can marvel at the collections of boxwoods, azaleas, lilacs, dwarf conifers, and ferns, along with the rare Asian plants, but these are also working scientific specimens.

In their extensive research as part of the planning process, Reed noted that they found an earlier property map from 1863, which showed the site’s hydrological systems, cropland and orchards. The rural trails through the landscape influenced the roads that were developed for the arboretum. “There have always been human and ecological imprints on this land,” Reed said.

U.S. National Arboretum 1863 Property Plan / U.S. National Arboretum

While the arboretum was included in the McMillan Plan for the District of Columbia, there was no further detail. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of senior, was involved in early planning. A framework plan created in 1948 guided the development of the site, with a further update by Sasaki in 1978, and then five or more planning efforts over the ensuing decades.

Reed’s team found that the landscape is made up of “wooded hills, meadows, dendritic ravines, and agrarian fields,” so restoring the original, diverse character of the landscape would be key to creating deeper stories and connections for visitors. The firm also wants to restore the connection with the Anacostia River, which flows along the east side of the arboretum, past the Asian collections. “We want to evolve the landscape so it’s more clear and coherent and better introduces people to the arboretum.”

U.S. National Arboretum Framework Plan / Reed Hilderbrand

Coherence will also arise from solving the many access and circulation issues.

One “70-year-old problem” is that the District of Columbia government didn’t follow early plans from the 50s and create additional connections into the arboretum straight off of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Olsen explained. “Visitors now arrive at the back door,” Reed said, through R Street, which cuts through a residential community, only after they have navigated the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, a major artery.

“This creates a larger wayfinding issue,” Reed argued. A key part of the new framework plan is to re-orient the entrance to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, with the idea of capturing more vehicles more easily.

Once drivers arrive, they will be steered towards a new, expanded visitor center where they will be invited to leave their car behind. Additional bicycle and pedestrian access improvements are also planned.

Reed Hilderbrand’s plan will center administrative and scientific efforts in the core of the arboretum, enlarging visitor services areas and scientific educational experiences, so that the story of the science can be better told.

U.S. National Arboretum Framework Plan / Reed Hilderbrand

At the same time, the plan calls for re-opening a gate along M Street and Maryland Avenue, near Carver Terrace, which was sealed off in the 1980s due to the explosion of drug-related crime. “We are working with the city to re-open this gate and provide more equitable access to the surrounding community,” Olsen said. “It will take funding.”

Back in the early days of the arboretum, vehicle drivers would travel off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, enter Maryland Avenue, and access the arboretum through grand gates. Those gates now appear as relics encircled by opportunistic plants.

Abandoned gate and entrance at U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Reed Hilderbrand plans on shrinking the parking lot facing the gates and expand the central Ellipse Meadow, the centerpiece of the arboretum, to extend south. “We will remake Ellipse Road as a pedestrian path and reconfigure the drives in this part of the campus.” Communities cut off from the park will soon be able to enter and greeted with an expanded meadow.

Inside the campus, the current circulatory system of the arboretum is highly car-centric, with nine miles of paved roads and a number of large parking lots. All of these impervious surfaces means that a sizeable chunk of the Arboretum’s $14 million annual budget goes to paying storwmater run-off fees to the District government.

So the new plan will remove some roads and make others permeable gravel, transform wide two-way roads into one-way routes, and scale back some large parking lots. The goal is to shift to inner and outer circuits.

Drivers will be invited to parallel park along these roads, but there will still be some larger parking lots for peak seasons, which is spring and fall. “In total, there will be 40 fewer acres of parking,” Reed said, which will help the arboretum significantly cut back on those stormwater fees.

The tour trolley then stopped at the Asian Collection. Trees for the Japanese collection were gathered after Word War II; for the Korean collection during the 1950s; and for the Chinese collection in the late 1980s, after the country opened again to Americans. Designed by landscape architect Perry Wheeler, the collection takes visitors down pathways to the Anacostia River.

Asian Collection at U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Here, Olsen described the great lengths scientists have gone to in order to gather specimens. One garden features a rare Chinese tree from the Camilia family that required a scientist to travel through a hillside latrine in rural China to secure its seeds. Beyond determined exploration and collection efforts like this, arboretum researchers study tree taxonomies, genetics, breeding, and virology.

Rare Chinese tree specimen / Jared Green

The tour ended at the arboretum’s heart: the interior corinthian columns of the original U.S. Capitol Building, which British garden designer Russell Page and landscape architecture firm EDAW arranged on a hilltop within the expansive Ellipse Meadow in the late 1980s.

National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
U.S. National Arboretum Ellipse Meadow / Jared Green

Experiencing the setting sun in the meadow was an uncommon pleasure given the arboretum’s usual closing hour of 5pm. Hopefully, if the arboretum’s new plan is fully realized, more visitors will be able to discover both the splendor of the landscape and the science, and hours will be extended for summer evening reveries.

Support the Friends of the National Arboretum’s fundraising efforts and also check out TCLF’s What’s Out There Guide to Washington, D.C. online and print versions.

Wenk Associates: Working with Water

Working Water: Reinventing the Storm Drain / ORO Editions

By Lori Catalano, ASLA, and Kelly Curl

The need to rapidly adapt to climate change has rightfully taken center stage. But the connections between climate change and stormwater management are often overlooked. Climate change impacts the hydrological cycle by increasing water scarcity and the frequency and intensity of flooding while contaminating waterways. Better managing stormwater is key to managing water resources and protecting our safety and the health of our environment.

Unfortunately, stormwater management is usually portrayed as a purely technical issue to be solved at the site. Instead, stormwater management systems should be valued as critical green infrastructure that provides design opportunities and are foundational to giving form to the broader built environment.

While stormwater management may not be sexy, it is vital to understand and integrate as part of larger efforts to protect our ecosystems and environment. The book Working Water: Reinventing the Storm Drain by landscape architecture and planning firm Wenk Associates argues challenges to “any city’s water supply and urban stormwater management can be addressed, in part, by changing how we manage our urban water resources as part of systems that employ the widespread use of natural technologies.” The firm, founded by landscape architect William Wenk, FASLA, has incorporated stormwater into the design of built environments and landscapes in the West and Midwest for over 35 years.

Burgess Creek Promenade, Steamboat Springs, Colorado / Wenk Associates

Projects in the book exemplify how stormwater, generally considered a nuisance, can be managed and integrated as a resource in the design of landscapes, making communities more livable as well as restoring ecological function and health. The selected projects range from built work early in the office’s practice to contemporary projects that explore the integration of function and beauty in managing stormwater at various project scales — from a small rain garden outside their early office in Denver to restoring the natural functioning of the Los Angeles River. In addition to cataloging projects, the author thoughtfully reflects on lessons learned, revealing both successes and failures as they suggest new approaches to create “the next generation of stormwater infrastructure, resulting in healthier urban and natural systems, making our cities better places in which to live.”

Confluence Park, Denver, Colorado / Wenk Associates

Wenk himself outlines his trajectory from a boy growing up on a farm in Michigan, to his foundational undergraduate studies in landscape architecture at Michigan State University, his observations about arid environments revealed while traveling across Europe and North Africa, and the influential work of artists, writers, and thinkers he explored during graduate studies at the University of Oregon. These experiences combine to inform the theoretical foundations for his life’s work.

He also shares his early career lessons regarding the value of urban green infrastructure that were strengthened while working closely with civil engineers. These professional experiences ultimately led to the founding of his practice in Denver, Colorado. Wenk desires to “reinvent the storm drain,” a metaphor for “expanding — down to the most basic details — the components of stormwater systems to invent new strategies for effective stormwater controls, and to promote the restoration of the natural functions of urban waterways in ways that add beauty and value to the urban landscape.”

TAXI Mixed-Use Development, Denver, Colorado / Wenk Associates

The first part of the book explains the close relationship of water resource management to culture and technology and clearly describes the impacts of urbanization on the water cycle and the land. Explaining how positive aspects of both ancient and contemporary water management systems can be integrated to address contemporary issues of water scarcity and improve water quality, the book sets the stage to examine how urban water resources can be better planned and designed. Ultimately, successful projects restore the function of ecological systems while creating meaningful places for people to gather.

Diagrams illustrating the impacts of urbanization. (Top to bottom) Agricultural irrigation system, conventional stormwater system, and contemporary solutions / Wenk Associates

Then, the book provides a carefully curated selection of Wenk Associates’ projects that exemplify what is meant by “working water.” The scale, type, and complexity of the highlighted projects vary greatly from small site design to large river corridors. Each of the case studies, which cover sites, districts, and corridors, demonstrate the rigor of the designers’ intent. Each projects’ context, vision, design strategies, constraints, and results are thoughtfully communicated with clear jargon-free narratives, diagrams, renderings, and attractive photographs of the built work.

The third part of the book reviews the critical factors leading to the success of Wenk Associates’ built works, along with lessons learned about legal, financial, and other challenges involved in implementing natural technologies, and the profession of landscape architecture’s involvement in integrating “multiple values and functions into the city’s infrastructure” and communicating “those values to affected communities.” The lessons go further than most books on stormwater do by calling for incentivizing district-scale stormwater control systems, identifying barriers to implementations of natural technologies, and calling on practicing professionals and the public to be advocates for change.

Lowry Parks and Open Space, Denver, Colorado / Wenk Associates
Lowry Parks and Open Space, Denver, Colorado / Brad Nicol Photography

Simultaneously, the scope of the book has limitations. Because this is a monograph, Working Water thoughtfully represents the experiences and philosophy of just one firm.

Missing from Working Water is also a stronger acknowledgement that underserved, historically marginalized communities are disproportionately hurt by the mismanagement of stormwater and that residents of these communities can play a greater role in designing a healthier and more livable environment.

The Menomonee Valley Redevelopment is an example that intentionally enriched underserved neighborhoods in Milwaukee by creating over 1,400 jobs, connecting neighborhoods with a new network of streets and green spaces, and providing access to a healthier and a cleaner river. Surely, this project included community input during the design processes to achieve these beneficial results. However, the residents and the role they played in this process are not given the prominence they deserve.

Menomonee Valley Redevelopment, Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Wenk Associates

Working Water is a needed addition to the body of literature on how to integrate designed green infrastructure with stormwater management to create more livable cities for a couple of reasons. It addresses issues specific to the temperate Midwestern climate of the savanna and steppe ecosystems, while most books focus on the more humid environments of the East and West coasts. It also contributes examples of beautiful projects that demonstrate regionally appropriate responses from the drumlin-inspired landscapes of Wisconsin to the semi-arid grasslands of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Front Range.

Working Water is intentionally written as an educational resource for students, decision-makers, regulators, municipal staff, designers, developers, and community advocates. A pleasant surprise included at the end of the book is a “working water glossary” that provides the reader with a general understanding of the definitions of terms and concepts used in the book.

Wenk Associates were early leaders in the integration of stormwater design. Their work has been so successful, it is now considered common in the practice of landscape architecture. The functional requirements of successful stormwater management are so well integrated in each project that the unprecedented nature of the designs may be overlooked.

The monograph is written similarly. It is humble; it is not flashy and does not use fancy words. It offers straightforward yet beautiful graphics and diagrams with no enigmatic collages; just solid, well-crafted, thoughtful work.

Like Ian McHarg’s layering process, the incorporation of stormwater management has been so integrated into landscape architecture that it is unrecognized when done well. This collection of completed projects when assembled as a monograph, may seem simple, as though anyone could do it. But don’t be deceived, Working Water: Reinventing the Storm Drain demonstrates how Wenk Associates makes the messy and difficult work of envisioning and implementing a complex project look simple, clean, and elegant, with a vision for the future.

Lori Catalano, ASLA, and Kelly Curl are associate professors in landscape architecture at Colorado State University.

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Offer “Next Game-Changing Ideas” (Part II)

Roadside wildflowers in Texas / Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

“Transformational leadership by landscape architects can help heal our post-traumatic world,” said Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s fifth class of Leadership and Innovation Fellows.

She told the in person audience of hundreds in downtown Washington, D.C. that the foundations of the landscape architecture profession feel like they are now “shaking,” but a path to a more diverse, equitable, and sustainable profession is in development. This path will be forged by continuously “cultivating the next game-changing ideas” and “removing obstacles in order to design effectively.” Over the course of a year-long research project, the six fellows, which include both emerging and established professionals, were asked to “transform themselves in order to transform others.”

Landscape architects once led roadway design, argued Ellen Oettinger White, who is a PhD Candidate at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux invented the concept of the parkway in the 1860s, and for decades landscape architects led interdisciplinary teams of engineers to construct roadways that prioritized landscape beauty. But with the rise of the Interstate Highway system in the Eisenhower era, “they lost their power.” Today, hundreds of landscape architects work in state departments of transportation and have “deep expertise” with road design, but they must now work collaboratively in teams led by engineers to exert their influence.

Timeline of landscape architecture and transportation / Ellen Oettinger White, image of Going-to-the-Sun Road, National Park Service

White said the 1930s were the height of landscape-architect led roadway design. In 1932, the Transportation Research Board’s Landscape and Environmental Design Committee was formed. The 1950s saw a loss of “positional power” for landscape architects with the rise of highways and freeways designed for high-speed travel. But with the Highway Beautiful Act of 1965, an effort led by Lady Bird Johnson, there was a greater focus on roadside native plants and wildflowers, increased flexibility in design, and a new, larger role for landscape architects (see image at top).

The more recent clear-cutting of trees along highways in many states provides an opportunity for landscape architecture to reclaim roadway design, White thinks. In Georgia, 13 percent of roadside acreage has been cleared. “Engineers see this as a safe landscape,” because fewer trees means fewer collisions with trees. But there has been a growing backlash in Georgia and other states where landscape beauty has been sacrificed in favor of notions about safety. “There are 5 million acres of public roadsides in the U.S. There are 1.1 billion car trips taken each day. Driving is the only way for millions to interact with the landscape.” White thinks roadsides provide an incredible opportunity to not only offer the benefits of scenic beauty, but also sequester carbon, restore ecosystems, and create safe wildlife corridors.

I-696 Slope Restoration Research Project / Michigan Department of Transportation, Nanette A.

N. Claire Napawan, ASLA, associate professor at University of California Davis, said her landscape architecture students are “so creative, engaged, and diverse, but they are entering a profession that is not diverse.” As part of her fellowship, her goal was to diversify landscape architecture pedagogy, reassess syllabi, and realize diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments in order to better resonate with diverse students. This involved re-evaluating outdated textbooks that fail to put diverse landscapes at the center.

Through her process, Napawan discovered one important truth: “We love stories. We love stories with heroes and villains, origin stories, and stories of transformation.” Stories have a deep impact on how we frame our understanding of the world. But too often our important stories are incomplete or not inclusive. For example, she said she had been teaching about Frederick Law Olmsted and Central Park, and up until recently didn’t know the story of Seneca Village, the freed Black community of landowners that was displaced to make way for the park. This led her on a “search for stories that are missing in formal education.” But a challenge became apparent: “how do you know what is missing, if it was always missing?”

N. Claire Napawan

Looking outside the landscape architecture academic discipline for answers, Napawan explored history, feminism, and critical race theory, academic disciplines “asking different questions.” This led her to her next conclusion: “We live stories. We are the stories we tell ourselves.” That is why it’s so important to encourage personal storytelling among diverse landscape architecture students. She relayed growing up bi-culturally in Bangkok, Thailand, and Scott County, Iowa, with her experiences either centered or marginalized, depending on her context. Students need to be provided with more diverse landscapes as learning tools to find ones that resonate with their own complex histories. “Design is storytelling. Storytelling needs to make room for multiplicities and radically different precedents. We need new stories for diverse design. And we need to leave space for new stories.”

Diverse landscape architecture student stories / N. Clare Napawan

“We need to advance the science of landscape architecture,” said James A. LaGro Jr., a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and editor-in-chief of Landscape Journal, the academic journal of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA). With a masters of landscape architecture and PhD in natural resource policy and planning from Cornell University, LaGro called for improving the scientific evidence of the benefits of landscape architecture. He argued that is key to the growth of the profession and increasing its impact.

With a comprehensive vision for how landscape architecture profession can grow in the future, he issued multiple calls to action to ASLA, LAF, CELA, and Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB). He called for increased pathways to advanced research degrees, including fellowships and scholarships, and multiple career paths outside private practice. To build a greater evidence-based practice, the landscape architecture profession should model itself after medical fields, with a clinician and research-based approach. Key to achieving this will be increased partnerships between university landscape architecture programs, firms, non-profit organizations and foundations, and government agencies. “We must foster partnerships — this is where the real synergies come in. Academics need to learn what research issues are from practitioners.”

More PhDs in the field of landscape architecture can also help improve research methods. “PhDs can ask more sophisticated questions and get more sophisticated answers.” He sees the rise of firm-based research labs as an implicit criticism of academia. Landscape architecture firms want to find solutions to “complex social problems and advance the profession, but they are not getting what they need from academics.” But he also cautioned that the case studies and research often created by firms have limited research value. “We need more systematic reviews, meta-analysis, and randomized control trials to create convincing evidence for policymakers. We need better evidence.”

James LaGro Jr.

Read Part I in this series.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 1-15, 2022)

President Jimmy Carter speaking in front of solar panels placed on the West Wing roof of the White House, announcing his solar energy policy / WKL, Library of Congress.

The 1977 White House Climate Memo That Should Have Changed the World – 06/14/2022, The Guardian
“Years before the climate crisis was part of national discourse, this memo to the president predicted catastrophe.”

At 200, Frederick Law Olmsted Continues to Shape Public Space – 06/11/2022, Boston Globe
“It’s impossible to imagine Boston without its Emerald Necklace, designed by the man considered the father of landscape architecture on principles the city struggles to live up to today.”

Nelson Byrd Woltz Tapped to Lead Planning Process for South Carolina’s Angel Oak Preserve – 06/09/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Angel Oak serves as the crowd-drawing centerpiece of a 9-acre namesake Johns Island park operated by the City of Charleston. In the future, Angel Oak will be further protected within a 35-acre nature preserve surrounding the park that, as announced this week, will be shaped by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.”

Get In. We’re Going to Save the Mall. – 06/08/22, The New York Times
“The second wave of mall building in the 1970s often targeted low-lying areas that were difficult to develop for residential or other uses, and rightly so, as they were bottoms, or stream beds prone to flooding. Meriden Hub Mall in Meriden, Conn., was one such site. In 2007 the city began working on a plan, using local, state and federal funds, to replace the mall with a 14-acre park, opening access to Harbor Creek, creating a public space that also functions as a water retention basin and building a bridge and amphitheater.”

NYC’s Union Square Gets a Colorful Reminder to Calm Down – 06/09/2022, Bloomberg CityLab
“The ‘Ripples of Peace and Calm’ street mural is meant to draw attention to newer pedestrian areas and pay homage to the city’s Asian community.”

How New Orleans Neighborhoods Are Using Nature to Reduce Flooding – 06/08/2022, Grist
“For many New Orleanians, water management isn’t about billion-dollar levees or century-old pumps. It’s about small, nature-based projects like that rain garden or pavement that allows water to soak in, new wetlands, or streets lined with trees.”

Solution or Band-Air? Carbon Capture Projects Are Moving Ahead – 06/07/2022, Yale Environment 360
“Long discussed but rarely used, carbon capture and storage projects — which bury waste CO2 underground — are on the rise globally. Some scientists see the technology as a necessary tool in reducing emissions, but others say it simply perpetuates the burning of fossil fuels.”

First Phase of OJB Landscape Architecture’s Sweeping Omaha Park Overhaul Will Open July 1 – 06/07/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Downtown Omaha’s rectangular urban green space, which first debuted in 1977 with a design by Lawrence Halprin & Associates, necessitated a 21st century refresh following an extended period of underuse and neglect. As OJB put it, the park had long grappled with ‘difficult access and activation issues.’”

PRIDE: Creating Inclusive Landscapes for All to Enjoy — 06/01/2022, Luxe
“For landscape architect David A. Rubin, empathy and accessibility are core qualities of business and personal ethos. The founding principal of DAVID RUBIN Land Collective—a nationally certified LGBT small business enterprise studio with locations in Philadelphia and Indianapolis—urges designers to shed light on the challenges of others by asking a simple question: ‘How can I help you?’ Here, Rubin underscores the value in taking risks and seeking commonalities over contrasts.”

Boston’s Heat Plan — 06/01/2022, Architectural Record
“The Heat Plan follows a nearly decade-long collaboration between Sasaki and the City of Boston and is a new and critical component of the Climate Ready Boston initiative, which seeks to address the short- and long-term effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise and extreme precipitation.”

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Offer “Next Game-Changing Ideas” (Part I)

Collective Action Model / Deb Guenther

“Transformational leadership by landscape architects can help heal our post-traumatic world,” said Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s fifth class of Leadership and Innovation Fellows.

She told the in person audience of hundreds in downtown Washington, D.C. that the foundations of the landscape architecture profession feel like they are now “shaking,” but a path to a more diverse, equitable, and sustainable profession is in development. This path will be forged by continuously “cultivating the next game-changing ideas” and “removing obstacles in order to design effectively.” Over the course of a year-long research project, the six fellows, which include both emerging and established professionals, were asked to “transform themselves in order to transform others.”

Deb Guenther, FASLA, a partner with Mithun in Seattle, explained that this year’s class worked as a collective to explore ideas about transformational leadership. Guenther’s project focused on the need to create a greater sense of kinship between landscape architects and the community leaders they partner with. Sharing the thoughts of community leaders she interviewed through video clips, Guenther highlighted one key idea: “if we want to achieve the transformational, then we need to build or rebuild the relational, and then experience the transactional together.”

Over the course of her fellowship, Guenther interviewed over 300 community leader and designers on how to build trust. In videos shown to the audience, community leaders explained the need to view communities as ecosystems, how advocacy around shared goals can create a sense of solidarity, how shared values resonate, and the importance of building community wealth in the form of stronger relationships, a sense of belonging, and improved health and well-being.

Her “collective impact model” explained how community projects led by a core group, rather than a single champion, have a greater chance of success (see image at top). She called for greater investment by landscape architects in building trust through community design centers, more professors of practice in landscape architecture educational programs, and more designers in residence in non-profit organizations. In addition, other key goals include investing in community organizations that advance equity and finding opportunities to shift policy upstream.

Landscape architects building trust with communities / Deb Guenther

Olivia Bussey, a landscape designer with Curtis + Rogers Design Studio in Miami, explored the landscapes of prisons and half-way houses. She said the U.S. prison system has “systemic issues,” and new landscape design standards are needed. Her research focused on the impact of inmates being exposed to unhealthy landscapes of incarceration, which are characterized by “lots of paving, few trees, sometimes a few shrubs.”

Conventional prison yard / unsplash, larry farr

According to Bussey, research by Dominique Moran finds that Nordic prisons that include forests inmates can access provide a “sense of calm, spaces for reflection, and connection with the world.” Other research has been conducted on Rikers Island, a prison complex in New York, which includes one of the oldest inmate-managed gardens in the country. One inmate who worked in the garden was quoted as saying “it is the only place I feel like a human being.” Importantly, Rikers inmates that gardened had a 40 percent lower recidivism rate than the general population of the prison.

Morten hugging a tree in a restricted area of the Nordic prison during a walked interview / Dominique Moran

The prison system doesn’t end once sentences have been completed. Bussey focused much of her research on half-way houses, which provide formerly incarcerated people with career, health, and social service support. “These spaces are like hallways, transitional spaces before re-entry into society.” Most half-way houses aren’t required to have outdoor spaces, but some do. She hopes to further research the correlation of recidivism rates with access to landscape amenities in these places, but getting information out of prison system administrators is a major challenge. “We currently design for people who we think deserve punishment, but we can instead design for public health and safety. 95 percent of people in prison will be back in society one day. What do we want them to experience?”

For Linda Chamorro, ASLA, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Florida International University in Miami, the Cut|Fill unconference, which was organized in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, was an awakening experience. There, she met other Latin American landscape architects who were wrestling with the ideas brought out by the event: “What do we need to cut away and what do we need to add?” As part of a collective effort with other designers — including Alexandra Burgos, Carolina English, Robert Colón, Assoc. ASLA, Jason Prado, ASLA, Sofia Charro, Jessica Arias, Ishaan Kumar, and Daví Parente Schöen — Chamorro sought to broaden labels of the Latin community to represent its true “diverse, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual” character. They proposed a new term to expand beyond the limitations of terms like Latin and Hispanic: “Latine/x/a/o*.”

Tierra Media Project team

In her talk, Chamorro also explored how the term “landscape” is loaded with meanings that don’t resonate with Latin audiences. Landscape is derived from land and property and elicits ideas related to ownership, colonization, and resource extraction. In contrast, the ancient term “Tierra” brings up a whole other set of ideas. “Tierra is living, breathing, and open.” Tierra is a “palimpsest of living histories and speaks of kinship with Pachamama. Tierra is about awareness and moving forward.”

Over the course of her independent study, Chamorro recorded video interviews with Latin Americans expatriates living in the U.S. about their feelings about Tierra. Through a poetic tour of memories of displacement, food, and family, the narrators explained how “Tierra is a protagonist, a character in our stories.” As part of the project, Chamorro and her colleagues launched the Tierra Media Project. The collective’s goal is to “encourage a deeper way of being with the land — to engage both the material and the spiritual.” They believe that “healing happens in communion with each other.” Instead of seeking to “add value and redesign places, what if we led with healing and the spirit of reciprocity with Tierra?”

Tierra Media Project

Read Part II in this series.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the Reporter, Author, and Letter Writer

Frederick Law Olmsted / New York Historical Society

Frederick Law Olmsted, who is considered the founder of American landscape architecture, was also a successful journalist and author. His articles for The New York Daily Times (now The New York Times) formed the basis of his influential books, including The Cotton Kingdom. He co-founded the magazine The Nation. His reporting in the South shaped his vision of democratic spaces and his later career as a “park maker.” But as he became more absorbed in practicing landscape architecture, he eventually phased down his publishing work.

According to Dede Petri, president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, Olmsted was an incredibly prolific writer. There are over a million Olmsted and Olmsted firm documents at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, and the Library of Congress has thousands more of his correspondence.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historical Site / Daderot, CC BY-SA 3.0

In a discussion organized as part of Olmsted 200, Harold Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York City, explained the little known history of Olmsted’s extensive writings, which had significant impact in their time, but are now largely forgotten outside of landscape architecture and American history circles.

In 1852, Olmsted published his first book, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, which grew out of an article on the public parks of Liverpool, England. Two years later, he began writing for The New York Daily Times, serving as a roving reporter through the American South, in the “form of a Dickens or De Tocqueville.” His byline was simply “Yeoman,” as daily newspapers didn’t identify writers by name then and wouldn’t for many more decades.

He wrote about “American landscape and society at the same time, and focused on slavery as a cruel and corrupting system,” Holzer said. Some argue Olmsted’s writings on the South, which were eventually edited and compiled into three books in the late 1850s and later formed the Cotton Kingdom, published in 1861, were the non-fiction equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in terms of their impact on Northerners’ views of slavery.

Retracing Olmsted’s steps in the South / Sara Zewde

Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel March, then discussed Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide by her late husband Tony Horwitz, who retraced Olmsted’s steps through Southern states for the book. She learned about Olmsted “by osmosis” through her husband’s research.

Olmsted was a “curious, open-hearted person,” who early in his career had “thrown himself into causes,” but “hadn’t found himself yet.” His reporting in the South was “very modern — not top-down, but bottom up.” He sought to put himself in the “path of adventure” and find the scenes “most liable to accidents.” His goal was to “do and go where not expected.”

Having been a semi-successful farmer earlier in his career, Olmsted was able to “glean the thoughts” of the farmers he interviewed. He understood how a plantation was managed and could ask questions that would yield insights. In his 54 dispatches for The New York Daily Times, he concealed the identities of the farmers and slaves he interviewed, while finding “evocative” stories to bring the South to life.

During his journey through the South, Olmsted also “allowed his mind to change,” Brooks said. Before his journey through the Southern states, he was moderately anti-slavery, but after what he witnessed, he became a “red hot abolitionist, with a righteous hatred for the institution of slavery.”

James Barron, a metropolitan reporter and columnist with The New York Times, said Olmsted got the job with his newspaper in a “five minute interview.” Then, The New York Daily Times was a start-up and had been in existence for just two years.

Henry Jarvis Raymond, co-founder of the paper, wanted a “disinterested and reliable” reporter on conditions in the South, not someone who would overly politicize. Raymond eventually complained Olmsted included too much detail in his articles. But it was this detail that made Olmsted’s writings endure, Barron argued.

Olmsted’s articles, which were later edited to highlight stronger abolitionist views when compiled in the Cotton Kingdom, were “unquestionably influential,” Barron said. And many argue his book persuaded European countries to not recognize the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Yet, most books about the history of The New York Times fail to even mention Olmsted. His writing has also been “almost forgotten” among newspaper historians and daily journalists.

In his lifetime, Olmsted was also influential in the magazine world. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation, said initial conversations about forming a weekly magazine about culture and politics occurred at the Union League Club as early as 1863. Two years later, Olmsted and others co-founded the magazine, which Olmsted also considered calling Scrutiny or Hold Fast.

Union League Club, New York City. (1900 and 1906) Detroit Publishing Co. / Library of Congress

With The Nation‘s founding, Olmsted helped create an “entire school of American journalism” that sought to step back from “hot takes” and provide a more balanced perspective rooted in a  greater sense of history and context. Avoiding “pandering to the greatest number,” he wanted to instead speak to those who cared about values and ideas.

The Nation from 1865 / Periodyssey

While daily papers wrote the first draft of history, weekly magazines could “ruminate” and provide a “sense of a slower pace,” vanden Heuvel said. Olmsted wrote just 10 articles for The Nation, including pieces on the Great Fire in Chicago and the parks of Paris. But his influence, including his early focus on race and slavery, instilled a focus on equity in the magazine that vanden Heuvel argued continues today.

For Brooks, Olmsted wasn’t a “radical for most of his life. The real apogee of his radicalism is during the Civil War.” But she thinks Olmsted’s writing still had a “radical effect.” For example, in 1949, a young black inmate stumbled upon Cotton Kingdom amid the few books available in the prison library. That inmate was Malcolm X, who later wrote about the “total horror” he found in Olmsted’s book.

Brooks believes our current era of division is “uncannily parallel” to the Civil War era in which Olmsted was active. “He believed in dialogue with those with whom you disagree.” They had “their facts and demons, and we have ours. It’s a difficult dialogue then — and now.”

Barron thinks once Olmsted found his true calling in landscape architecture, he thought planning and design were better ways to create enduring, positive change than journalism. “He saw the South as opposite of what it should be.” He thought more communities in the north and south needed town squares and parks. Designing public spaces was a way to plant the seeds of democracy.

Central Park, New York City / fdastudillo,

There is a through line between Olmsted’s writings and landscape architecture — both sought to promote “dialogue and an egalitarian spirit,” vanden Heuvel argued. Olmsted believed that public spaces were an “antidote to private spaces” like plantations. “He sought public space in the public spirit.” But she noted that what has long been considered his masterpiece — Central Park in New York City — involved the New York City government displacing Seneca Village, a freed Black community of landowners, a community only now being acknowledged and honored.

Map of Seneca Village / NYC Municipal Archives, via NY1

“Central Park so absorbed him. He didn’t waver from landscape architecture,” Brooks said. If he was writing his own obituary, “he wouldn’t emphasize” his writing career.

In addition to his published works, Olmsted wrote thousands of letters in his life, including to President Abraham Lincoln, Holzer added.

In one long letter, he advised Lincoln to print the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves, on linen panels that could be posted throughout Southern states. But he also recommended Lincoln publish a transcript of his White House discussion with African American leaders after the proclamation, in which he asked them to voluntarily leave the U.S. and colonize Central America and Africa. The African American leaders “declined, more politely than Lincoln deserved.” Olmsted thought Lincoln should “promote both policies in order to assuage border states afraid of integration.” He still sought to influence national policies, but through letters.

The Green New Deal Superstudio Comes to the Sweetwater River Corridor

Sweetwater River channel, National City, San Diego county / USFWS Pacific Southwest Region, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Green New Deal Superstudio inspired thousands of planning and landscape architecture students around the world to envision better futures for underserved communities. With the goals of the Green New Deal Congressional proposal in mind, Kathleen Garcia, FASLA, a lecturer at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego) led her undergraduate planning students through multiple studios to re-imagine the Sweetwater River corridor, just south of the city of San Diego, near the border with Mexico.

At the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference, students from Garcia’s class outlined their visions for a three-mile-long segment of the river that courses through National City, a primarily Hispanic and low-income industrial community.

“National City is a front line community” in dealing with the combined impacts of climate change, pollution, and inequities, Garcia said. The community and river corridor gave her studio opportunities to explore the three goals of the Green New Deal — decarbonization, jobs, and justice.

According to Garcia, the community is “crisscrossed with freeways and rail lines, polluted by heavy industry along its riverfronts, and separated from most remnants of nature.”

The rich lands around the Sweetwater River were once home to the Kumeyaay indigenous people, but is now a “flood-control channel.” The floodplain and grazing lands have been “converted into strip malls, scattered housing, auto dealerships, industry, active rail lines, and at the river’s mouth, a major marine terminal,” where nearly half a million imported cars arrive annually.

Climate change promises to increase the threat of wildfires and exacerbate existing urban heat islands, flooding, and air pollution in the community. “Local jobs are few. Residents commute at least 20 miles in congestion to jobs elsewhere. Native heritage has all been but erased. The city is highly dependent on car sales for its tax base. However, what will transportation look like in a cleaner, greener future?”

The students in her class range from third- to fourth-year students and major in diverse subjects such as planning, psychology, data sciences, and engineering. They are “looking for ways to make a difference,” and the Green New Deal inspired them to envision a much different National City and Sweetwater River.

Much of National City Maritime Terminal is built on fill, which is “not friends with sea level rise,” said Juli Beth Hinds, an instructor of planning at UC San Diego, who participated in the tour. The mouth of the Sweetwater River, which is along one edge of the Maritime Terminal, can only be seen from the tiny Pepper Park, one of the few public green spaces along the waterfront.

Pepper Park, National City, San Diego county / Port of San Diego’s Public Parks, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Here, Ethan Olson, a third-year student who is majoring in planning and urban studies and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture, brought out his boards to show his ideas. He proposed a new open space corridor through the industrial area surrounding the port, but on the inland edge to provide space to retreat from sea level rise.

REPRISAL: A Proposal for the Future of the National City Marine Terminal / Ethan Olson

The new corridor would serve as a green spine for mixed-use development, including housing and retail, and local job creation that isn’t dependent on transporting cars out of the port. Olson also envisioned weaving in bike infrastructure and properly connecting the Bayshore Bikeway, along with boosting local healthy food production.

Olson noted that the Port of San Diego and nearby Naval facilities are already planning for sea level rise, with some projections indicating a potential of 9 feet by 2100. Much of this critical coastal infrastructure is under threat.

REPRISAL: A Proposal for the Future of the National City Marine Terminal / Ethan Olson

“The big scope of the Green New Deal Superstudio appealed to me. Climate change isn’t an environmental issue alone, but also an economic, social, planning, and political one. The Green New Deal doesn’t ignore that. I like it as a concept,” Olson said.

Nine students presented their ideas over the next three hours at locations throughout National City. The bus stopped at a strip mall and big-box store district; a desolate riparian green space at the outer edge of a parking lot; the location of a major swap meet; next to a solar power installation alongside the freeway; and in a deserted dealership along the Mile of Cars, a string of automobile showrooms.

Renewable power plant next to freeway in National City, San Diego county / Jared Green

At the Gateway Marketplace strip mall, Rashma Saini, a third-year student majoring in developmental psychology, walked us through her planning ideas, crafted with the perspective of a typical National City high school student in mind.

Envisioning a new direct connection to the high school across the Sweetwater River, riverfront promenade, and shopping and entertainment district, Saini wants a high-quality space for the many Mexican students who study in San Diego, a place for them to hang out with friends before returning by bus to Tijuana. “It’s important that students feel welcome. We need to focus on their mental health and well-being.”

National City Sweetwater River Corridor Plan / Rashma Saini

A later stop in a parking lot near a Burlington Coat Factory offered a close-up view of the channelized river. Here, Mitchell Kadowaki, who recently graduated from UC San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in environmental systems, showcased his plans for improving the urban tree canopy of National City. The now concrete-lined river is ripe for restoration as a riparian corridor, providing habitat benefits.

Sweetwater River Corridor Plan: Bolstering the Urban Canopy in National City / Mitchell Kadowaki

Through his research, he found that only six percent of National City is park land, much lower than the San Diego county average. But he noted that significantly expanding the tree canopy with the wrong tree species, improperly sited, could also further contribute to the drought by taxing already low water reserves.

Hinds noted that “tree selection is a live issue” in San Diego county. Until recently, palm trees, which offer few ecological benefits, have been specified as part of city plans. Eucalyptus trees, which are also not native and can be a wildfire hazard, can’t be removed from UC San Diego’s campus “unless they are diseased.” One way to increase tree and shrub diversity in the county could be to restore habitat for birds, including the endangered California gnatcatcher.

Stricken with drought in 2015, the San Diego Housing Authority shut off irrigation to street trees, killing them in the process. This impacted underserved residents that already have fewer street trees, amplifying the effects of heat islands and air pollution. San Diego is now exploring greywater re-use for irrigation, and there are a growing number of contractors who can do these kinds of projects, Hinds said.

Through the Green New Deal Superstudio projects, Garcia sought to show there is a “lot of overlap” between planning, landscape architecture, and urban design disciplines.

What she learned working as a landscape architect at WRT and planning director for the City of Del Mar is that “you get better solutions when you get people outside their boxes and comfort zones.” Landscape architecture and planning, in particular, use the “exact same problem solving but just at different scales.”

Her undergraduate students learned the stages of planning, explored different disciplinary lenses, and some are even inspired to become landscape architects.

Explore more of the GND Superstudio proposals created as part of Garcia’s class.