Looking to Olmsted in the Era of Global Urbanization

Riverside Park and Central Park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Manhattan, NYC / istockphoto.com, Terraxplorer

This year marks the 200th birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted, who is considered the founder of the profession of landscape architecture. Do his ideas still matter in today’s rapidly urbanizing world? Jayne Miller, chair of World Urban Parks, asked global landscape architects and park leaders to weigh in during the latest online conversation organized by Olmsted 200.

For Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape and professor and dean, College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Peking University, “Olmsted is still relevant because he knew how to meet essential human needs. He brought nature back to the city, which is so important for the human body. We need nature to get energy. But we also need open public space as a group. He believed green space means equal space.”

Mount Royal Park, Montreal, Quebec, Canada by Frederick Law Olmsted / istockphoto.com, bakerjarvis

“Olmsted knew if you love nature, you will take care of it. Elevating nature is about civilizing yourself. If we elevate nature, we also civilize human beings. We can civilize cities,” Yu said.

Olmsted was one of the first to articulate the value of nature for an urbanizing world, said Yu, who has translated many of Olmsted’s essays into Chinese.

In the 1880s, when Olmsted was at his peak, almost 30 percent of the U.S. population was urban; today, it is 70 percent. In contrast, China was just 10 percent urban up until a few decades ago and then the country went through a rapid period of urbanization, reaching an urbanization rate of nearly 65 percent by 2022.

“Urbanization is now global, and we can all learn from what Olmsted knew 150 years ago. He was 150 years ahead of the rest of the world.”

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park, Quzhou City, Zhejiang Province, China. Turenscape

“Olmsted sticks with us because he knew landscapes are about delivering physical, psychological, and social benefits — they can even be symbols of collective identity,” said Romy Hecht, associate professor at the School of Architecture, Ponticia Universidad Católica de Chile.

“It seems to me Olmsted was about re-imagining cities as a whole place with whole landscapes,” said Alison Barnes, CEO, New Forest National Park Authority, chair of the Green Halo Partnership, and board member of London National Park City.

Barnes’ own work with London National Park City is a “modern Olmsted movement,” Miller argued. It’s about “everyone benefiting and contributing to urban nature, about deep democratization of nature,” Barnes said.

Primrose Hill Park, London / istockphoto.com, Paolo Paradiso

“We think cities should be habitats for ourselves. We should be able to get lost in nature in cities and connect with nature wherever we are.”

“I think Olmsted said utility trumps ornament. Utility is about connecting with our need for nature. There is a lot of synergy with our work and Olmsted’s. It’s important that we refresh these ideas.”

The pandemic caused large numbers of urbanites to leave the city and buy homes, sometimes sight unseen, in more natural rural areas, Miller said. Could this be the first sign in a slow down in global urbanization?

“I believe more urbanization is inevitable. Human communities have always evolved into urban ones. It could be a beautiful process rooted in nature,” Hecht said.

But for this to happen, more cities will need to follow Olmsted’s model. “He was an activist who called for urban improvements, a sense of community, and the diversification of opportunities.”

For Barnes, it is less about following an Olmsted-like figure and more about engaging and empowering communities to take action — to “create demand for nature.” In the UK, a number of development projects that would have negatively impacted natural areas haven’t happened because of “strong and vibrant” community groups.

Access to green space is a fundamental human need; “it’s essential.” “It’s not just landscape architects on their hobby horses, but about ensuring our quality of life.”

Unfortunately, access to urban nature is still highly unequal across the developed and developing worlds, even where there is significant community engagement. For example, in Santiago, Chile, which has six million residents in 200 thousand acres, “37 percent of the population has just 33 square feet of green space per capita, while 0.5 percent has 200 square feet per capita,” Hecht said. There is also unequal maintenance of these spaces and therefore unequal park quality.

Parque Bustamante, Providencia district, Santiago de Chile, Chile / istockphoto.com, tifonimages

This means “we need a green recovery” that brings more parks to more people. “Leaders have an obligation to engage communities to achieve these goals. We need to start with leaders.”

Along with rapid urbanization, countries around the globe must also contend with the climate crisis. Miller asked: What would Olmsted propose to address the impacts of climate change — green infrastructure and nature-based solutions?

“The first wave was Olmsted’s wave — to green the city. The second wave was to design with nature at the regional scale, like Ian McHarg proposed. Now with industrialization and urbanization at a global scale, we need a third wave — to transform the globe,” Yu argued.

“We need new nature-based infrastructure. We can no longer rely on concrete, steel, and chemicals. Sea walls and gates will inevitably fail. We need to plan ecological infrastructure” for the entire planet.

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape

“Olmsted offered a way. His Emerald Necklace in Boston was adaptive with a muddy river system. He gave space for the water, marshlands, and lowlands. This is a model for adapting to climate change.”

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

Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, aerial view from the south / Studio Gang and SCAPE

Studio Gang’s Redesigned Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock, US, is Set to Open to the Public – 09/2022, ArchDaily
“The new building is situated within 11 acres of public landscape designed by SCAPE Landscape Architecture and inspired by the native ecologies of Arkansas.”

Michigan Gets $105M Grant from Feds To Turn I-375 in Detroit Into Boulevard – 09/15/2022, The Detroit News
“City leaders have envisioned the elimination of I-375 as a way to reconnect once-predominantly Black neighborhoods divided by the highway when it was built in the 1950s and ’60s, bulldozing the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley residential and commercial districts in the name of urban renewal.”

The Best of Urban Design 2022 – 09/15/2022, Fast Company
“See all the honorees of Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards in the Urban Design category.”

At 75, the Father of Environmental Justice Meets the Moment – 09/12/2022, The New York Times
“The White House has pledged $60 billion to a cause Robert Bullard has championed since the late seventies. He wants guarantees that the money will end up in the right hands.”

The Town Squares We Used to Have — and Could Have Again – 09/12/2022, Governing
“This historic importance of town squares, in towns of all shapes and sizes, is impossible to dispute. The question is how badly we need them now — not just as picturesque garden spots but as gathering places for a functioning community.”

First Look at Frisco’s Newest Park – 09/07/2022, Local Profile
“OJB Landscape Architecture, the firm behind Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, is handling the park’s design that’s centered around providing inclusive and accessible year-round arts and culture programming to reflect North Texas’ diverse character.”

Herzog & De Meuron and Piet Oudolf Team for Philadelphia’s Forthcoming Calder Gardens – 09/07/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Landscape architect Richard Herbert, ASLA, joins Herzog & de Meuron and Piet Oudolf to design Calder Gardens, slated to open in 2024.”

Uproar Causes U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Rethink Miami Storm Protection Plan

Visualization of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ grey infrastructure proposal. Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority
Visualization of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ grey infrastructure proposal. Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority

A persuasive local advocacy and media campaign convinced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new, expanded study for a $6 billion project to protect Miami from future hurricanes, coastal flooding, and climate impacts. Critics argued that the Army Corps’ initial draft plan for the project, which had proposed a series of sea walls and gates, would have negatively impacted the character of Miami, reduced property values, and cut-off access to important waterfront parks, exacerbating existing inequities in access to public space.

The Miami Mayor’s office and Downtown Development Authority instead demanded a deeper exploration of nature-based solutions, including constructed islands and mangroves, to protect the urban coastline along Biscayne Bay. The Army Corps has agreed to spend $8 million over 60 months, essentially doubling the cost and timeline of the original study, and take a more collaborative approach with city stakeholders.

Key to this shift were renderings created by Miami-based, women-led landscape architecture firm Curtis + Rogers Design Studio for the Miami Downtown Development Authority, which governs the business district. These concepts were included in the Authority’s response to the Army Corps’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study but soon became the focus of public attention and coverage in The Miami Herald and local TV stations, social media discussion, and national coverage in NPR and The New York Times. The authority commissioned visuals that would both show how 20-feet-tall concrete walls along the bayfront would impact the city (see images at top) and demonstrate how a better alternative, rooted in nature, could offer protections while offering many other benefits.

According to Aida Curtis, ASLA, a founding principal at the firm, the Authority gave her firm just two weeks, during the height of the pandemic, to work with coastal and civil engineers to create nature-based design concepts. She explained that the concepts are comprehensive, but more research, modeling, planning, and design work needs to be done to further hone the ideas. Still, the Authority was able to use these concepts for leverage in negotiations with the Army Corps.

“We had envisioned vegetated shorelines with mangroves along with strategically-placed bermed islands in the Bay that would attenuate wave action during storm surges. This is a grey/green solution, not all nature-based, but it would be much better for the community and environment and increase park access,” Curtis said in a zoom interview.

An alternative nature-based proposal. Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority
An alternative nature-based proposal. Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority
An alternative nature-based proposal. Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority

Curtis argues that “this kind of idea is what the Corps should have proposed initially,” and her concepts are line with their stated Engineering with Nature principles, which calls for using nature-based solutions to solve climate impacts.

The Army Corps had engaged Miami-Dade County, which includes the City of Miami, in a series of complex feasibility studies to improve resilience against storms, flooding, and sea level rise. In other study areas, south of the city, the Army Corps did propose nature-based solutions, including mangroves, Curtis said.

But the issue was in the downtown core, they only offered hard grey infrastructure. “We wanted to show the walls as real as they would be, with graffiti and the trash that is common in parts of downtown Miami. People didn’t realize how tall or in-your-face these walls would actually be.”

Visualization of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ grey infrastructure proposal. Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority

“Their proposal would also have put many residential communities outside the wall. This lack of thought is what caused the uproar. The city needs a much more comprehensive solution.”

Curtis noted that Miami suffers from significant water management problems. So much groundwater has been extracted through wells that saltwater is now seeping into the water supply. Stormwater runoff and fertilizer use throughout the city and country have caused significant water quality issues, leading to massive fish kills. In Miami Beach, a system of pumps have been instituted to draw out flood water. “But they discovered that during a hurricane, there is no power, which means no pumps. Grey infrastructure solutions for water management have failed in Miami.”

There are many arguments for designing nature-based solutions — using landscape architecture strategies to help solve Miami’s problems. Curtis said they offer multiple environmental and equity benefits.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tentative Selected Plan and Alternate Plan. Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority

On the environmental side, mangroves reduce inland flooding by serving as a barrier against waves. But they also clean and oxygenate the water while providing habitat for sea life and sequestering carbon.

An alternative nature-based proposal. Response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Study / Curtis + Rogers Design Studio, courtesy of Miami Downtown Development Authority

Given housing has become increasingly unaffordable, lower-income communities in Miami have been pushed west, inland. “Park and open space is very limited in the city. Low-income and immigrant communities have limited access to the waterfront.”

One of the benefits of natural coastal infrastructure is that it can double as park land. “New islands in the bay could be designed to be accessible public space that people can enjoy.” Her firm’s proposal would create 39 acres of new public recreational areas.

Curtis said next steps will be key. The Army Corps and city will need to “bring in more stakeholders and get more community input.” The city is expected to also undertake their own complimentary planning effort.

Perhaps the one positive effect of the initial Army Corps study is that “more people in Miami are now paying attention to this and more are involved in climate action,” Curtis said. “The intended audience of the response was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the Authority’s report and our images transcended and went viral.” There is also now greater awareness of the value of nature-based solutions and “the detrimental effect grey solutions can have on cities — the severe damage they can have on quality of life.”

Climate Week NYC: Designing Better Shorelines–with Nature

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NYC / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

As part of Climate Week NYC, one of the world’s largest climate events, the New York Chapter of ASLA has organized a dynamic virtual event: Designing Better Shorelines—with Nature.

This free on September 21 at 4.30 PM EST features Pippa Brashear, ASLA, Principal, SCAPE Landscape Architecture; Donna Walcavage, FASLA, Principal, Stantec; and Adrian L. Smith, FASLA, Vice President at ASLA and Team Leader, Staten Island Capital Projects, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

According to the panel, designing with nature helps communities become more resilient to climate change. Living Breakwaters and the Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project in Staten Island, New York City, demonstrate how coastal communities can adapt to rising seas and increasingly intense storms. These innovative projects, led by landscape architects, work in tandem to reduce wave action and beach erosion, create wildlife habitat, and enhance public recreation.

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NYC / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

The built environment not only includes buildings and concrete infrastructure, but also landscapes, which are increasingly critical for adapting to climate change. Landscape architects are responsible for planning and designing these nature-based solutions that bring maximum benefits to communities.

The two projects in Staten Island grew out of New York City’s response to Superstorm Sandy, which struck in October 2012. The storm was a wake-up call for the city to better prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project / Stantec

Sandy’s impact is understood to have been intensified by climate change — higher ocean temperatures and sea levels may have contributed to the heavy rainfall and the stronger storm surge, which inundated parts of Staten Island and led to the death of several residents and billions of dollars in damage.

Living Breakwaters is currently being constructed in the Raritan Bay. The Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project will be built on the shore itself. The landscape architects leading these projects will explain why we need to re-imagine our coastlines for climate change and future superstorms and how to do it.

Register today

For landscape architects, this free event offers 1 hour of PDH (LACES / HSW)

Celebrate Park(ing) Day 2022

Illinois Chapter of ASLA Park(ing) Day, 2017, Chicago, Illinois / site design group ltd.

By Lisa J. Jennings and Jared Green

This year, ASLA brings Park(ing) Day to PreK-12 schools, libraries, and community centers across the country. And this year Park(ing) Day isn’t just one day, but a full weekend — September 16-18.

Let’s help students re-imagine streets one parking space at a time. Using a parking space in front of a school, library, or community center, landscape architects can partner with PreK-12 students to think outside the classroom. Help students discover how to improve our public spaces, strengthen social connections, and boost health and well-being.

Step 1: Connect with your local school, library, or community center
Seek out art or science teachers, librarians, or after school program leaders.

Step 2: Make your pitch
Explain the purpose of Park(ing) Day and share the positive results of past Park(ing) Day celebrations in your community.

Step 3: Pair up with a group of students
Make yourself and your organization available to lead a group of students in the redesign of a Park(ing) Day space.

Step 4: Provide planning resources
Direct teachers and school leaders to ASLA’s resources — insurance, Park(ing) Day license and manual  — and help with any permits needed.

Step 5: Design and build a Park(ing) Day space with students
Partner with students, teachers, librarians, and community center leaders to DREAM BIG and plan and design a Park(ing) Day space. Source sustainable materials that can be recycled or reused. Reach out to local nurseries or firms for donations of big ticket items like a tree, plants, a bench, or bird bath that the school, library, or community center can keep.

Illinois Chapter of ASLA Park(ing) Day, 2017, Chicago, Illinois / site design group ltd.

Step 6: Post images of your Park(ing) Day installation to your social (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) using the hashtag #ParkingDay and tag us (@nationalasla)
Make sure you have permission or signed release forms from anyone you photograph.

ASLA will highlight the best posts from students, firms, and chapters across our social platforms!

Lastly, be sure to encourage teachers and students to Save the Date for DREAM BIG with Design 2022, September 22-23. A free online event, DREAM BIG will immerse PreK-12 students in design-centered strategies that address some of the most critical issues of our time. Live, interactive sessions will explore the future of landscape architecture and apply design techniques that can be aligned with interdisciplinary curricula.

Park(ing) Day, 2008 / BAR Architects & Interiors

Adriaan Geuze Wins Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award

Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA / © Maaike Engels

The International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) has announced Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, founder of the global landscape architecture firm West 8, has received the 2022 Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award, the “preeminent award for landscape architects and the highest honor IFLA can bestow.” The jury, which included ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen, stated that “Geuze is one of the most significant landscape architects in the world today.” His firm’s projects in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. have “changed the relationship between cities, nature, and people.”

West 8 has completed more than 200 landscape architecture, planning, and urban design projects in over 60 countries, on four continents, IFLA writes.

West 8 says its design philosophy is about interweaving “function, engineering, sustainability, symbolism, expression — and both the vulnerability and euphoria of mass culture.”

“Landscape, infrastructure, nature, and historical legacies” coalesce to shape our cities. “The analysis of the unseen logic — ecology, infrastructure, water and soil conditions, building programs, and people” – enables landscape architecture “to be at the forefront of sustainability, ecological sensitivity, and resilience.”

In the U.S., the firm is perhaps best known work for their plan for Governors Island in New York City, which won an ASLA professional award, and The Hills, a set of constructed slopes at the north end of the island that offers 360 views of Staten Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, lower Manhattan, and Jersey City, along with a 36-foot-long slide. In an 2016 article in The New Yorker, design critic Alexandra Lange said Geuze has reinvented the concept of the park with Governors Island and his other projects in Europe.

Governors Island, NYC / © Kreg Holt

Lange reveals the sense of discovery the Hills offer: “In holding you here, between the city and the peaks, Geuze delays the big reveal, focusing attention on the curtain, on the way that the landscape architecture has embroidered the ground beneath your feet. Then he draws the curtain back to show a star that needs no introduction: as a visitor strolls down the path, the Hills part to reveal the Statue of Liberty.”

Governors Island, NYC / © Timothy Schenck Photography

Other significant recent projects include Máximapark outside Utrecht, a city in the center of the Netherlands. The massive 740-acre park serves as a “unifying public space” for a new suburb of 100,000 people.

The park includes 123 acres of traditional park features, including “woods, fields, meandering watercourses, ponds, pedestrian areas, a playground, bridges and formal avenues for visitors to enjoy.” Another 246 acres was given over to a local association for sports fields. And the rest was donated back to the city to develop as housing in order to ensure the park has a dedicated community and sense of security. A 2-mile long, nearly 20-foot-tall honey comb-shaped pergola, which winds through the park, not only helps demarcate the public space, but also provides habitat for climbing plants, bats, birds, and insects.

Máximapark, Utrecht, The Netherlands / © Jeroen Musch

And in Madrid, Spain, Geuze and his team led Madrid Río, a six-billion Euro project, with Spanish architecture firms Burgos & Garrido, Porras La Casta, and Rubio & A-Sala. Capping a highway tunnel and its exits, the project revitalizes a 3.7-mile-long stretch of the River Manzanares. A series of seven new parks, each distinct, connect into a linear park along the river, stitching communities together.

Park Madrid Rio, Madrid, Spain / © Hovercameras

One road off the highway was relocated, creating space for a 1,000-vehicle underground parking garage, which was then capped with a garden. Twenty new bridges increase access to the river and surrounding communities. The new park system won an Urban Land Institute Open Space Award in 2018.

For Geuze, these projects highlight that “public space has become the dominant subject for the landscape architecture profession. Today demands a proactive attitude:

  • to engineer softscape and shade against hardscape
  • to speak out for the public and free spaces against the commercialization of the urban realm
  • to veto traffic-dominated streetscapes
  • to campaign for pedestrian-friendly cities
  • and above all to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for all user groups.”