Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders Focus on Climate, Equity, and Technology (Part II)

Image created in Photoshop using generative AI / Phillip Fernberg

“Our fellows have shown courage, written books, founded mission-driven non-profits, created new coalitions, and disseminated new tools,” said Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership program at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Sanders highlighted the results of a five-year assessment of the LAF fellowship program and its efforts to grow the next generation of diverse landscape architecture leaders. The assessment shows that past fellows are shaping the future of the built environment in key public, non-profit, and private sector roles.

And she introduced the latest class of six fellows, who focused on climate, equity, technology, and storytelling:

Artificial intelligence (AI) will bolster, break, and transform the process of landscape architecture,” said Phillip Fernberg, a designer and PhD student at Utah State University. Many kinds of artificial intelligence have been developed over past decades. But what has recently caught our collective attention is ChatGPT, an “artificial general intelligence.” He said ChatGPT “isn’t as magical as you may think” — it’s machine learning from patterns of data. But it shows the range of transformative and disruptive technologies to come.

AI will bolster landscape architects’ work by making it far easier to find images of different species of trees and plants. It will also help landscape architects and community groups better analyze landscapes, particularly at the large scale, and advance efforts on climate change, biodiversity, and equity.

But it will also break landscape architects’ conception of their role and value as designers. AI tools have already demonstrated they can create renderings that look nearly human made. This raises questions for landscape architects, like: “What is it that I really do?”

Renderings created by Midjourney AI / Jeff Cutler

Fernberg thinks renderings won’t become fully AI-driven, but designers’ jobs will be rethought to better integrate with AI. He said a host of privacy, ethical, and intellectual property issues will also need to be addressed.

Ultimately, AI will transform how landscape architects work, changing the data, models, and processes used by designers. He called for landscape architects and ASLA to catch up to where architects and planners are. These professions have formed networks and working groups and developed research to explore the implications of AI. “Landscape architects need to imbue their value system in these tools.”

For Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, access to gardens and nature in prisons helps inmates heal from abuse, trauma, and addiction and prepare for a healthier life after their incarceration.

Worldwide, there are currently 10.3 million people imprisoned. Approximately 25 percent of those people — 2.2 million — are incarcerated in the U.S. In America, prison is “oppressively bleak” and “designed to be demoralizing.” Prison practices are also rooted in a history of racism and social injustices. These environments are typically “austere and efficient.” Most often, there is very little access to nature.

In contrast, many European countries have “open prisons” that provide inmates access to wild nature. Inmates have responsibilities tending gardens and earn trust that prepares them to be responsible citizens post-incarceration.

Halden Prison Garden, Halden, Norway / Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA

Through a series of powerful recorded interviews, Winterbottom found that inmates involved in garden programs experienced a range of benefits. They experienced reduced stress and conflict. They harmed themselves and others less and cared for themselves and others more. “Working on the garden helped them work on themselves. Outer gardening led to inner gardening — weeding and pruning their defects and shortcomings,” one interviewee said. Correctional officers, which also suffer from high rates of PTSD and suicide, saw benefits.

Garden at San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California / Insight Garden Program

Winterbottom sees the need for a national policy to enable restorative prison gardens, but acknowledged it will require long-term advocacy to achieve. He pointed to “pockets of change” in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington. He urged landscape architects to partner with prisons to develop gardens, volunteer or teach in prisons, mentor formerly incarcerated people, and advocate for reform.

“Landscape architects deal with massive social and environmental problems but we are nearly absent in popular culture. We need new vehicles to bring people in,” said Joseph James, ASLA, founder of Eponymous Practice. One promising vehicle is graphic novels, which are “the fastest growing section of the library.” These visual books are increasingly popular because they are “really approachable and accessible for struggling readers.”

Building on his love of comics, James spent his fellowship drawing and writing his own graphic novel focused on the power of place. He said places become meaningful for people when they are tied to memories and emotions. And he wanted to convey how landscape architects purposefully design places for people to connect to.

His graphic novel features teenagers who had transformed a park into a magical world, a place of adventure, with ruins and a wizard. They learn their beloved landscape is being threatened by a renovation, but then with the help of a neighborhood landscape architect become involved in the redesign process. They learn how landscape architects plan and design communities.

Landscape Architecture Graphic Novel / Joseph James
Landscape Architecture Graphic Novel / Joseph James

James is also developing a companion teacher’s guide for the graphic novel, with recommendations on how to use the book to teach earth and life sciences and design thinking. He argues that “place-based storytelling” is one of the best ways to reach young people and introduce them to landscape architecture.

And he called on landscape architects to develop strong relationships with K-12 schools and use hands-on drawing exercises in classes. His graphic novel is rooted in his work with teachers and students in Boston at the Boston Green Academy and explorations of Franklin Park.

The tree wizard of Franklin Park. Boston, Massachusetts / Joseph James

Read Part I

The ASLA Fund Announces Awardees of Inaugural National Competitive Research Grants

Left: Dr. Daniella Hirschfeld, Utah State University / Bronson Teichert, Utah State University; Right: Dr. Sohyun Park, ASLA, University of Connecticut

Focus is on Extreme Heat and Biodiversity Loss Solutions Designed by Landscape Architects

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization, has announced $25,000 in national competitive grants.

The grant awardees will produce research that outlines evidence of the benefits of landscape architecture solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. The research will be published on and openly accessible in spring 2024.

The grant awardees are:

Landscape Architecture Solutions to Extreme Heat

Dr. Daniella Hirschfeld, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, Utah State University

Dr. Hirshfeld will explore landscape architecture- and nature-based solutions that are effective at reducing temperatures. Dr. Hirshfeld will identify design strategies that have demonstrated temperature reduction benefits while also sequestering carbon, protecting and increasing biodiversity, and reducing climate risks.

Landscape Architecture Solutions to Biodiversity Loss

Dr. Sohyun Park, ASLA, PhD, SITES AP, Assistant Professor, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, University of Connecticut

Dr. Park will explore landscape architecture- and nature-based solutions that address the biodiversity crisis. Dr. Park will identify design strategies that offer proven biodiversity and ecological gains while also sequestering carbon, improving water quality and management, and reducing climate risks.

“While we were developing our Climate Action Plan, landscape architects told us what they needed most was authoritative evidence that demonstrates all the great benefits of their work. We are thrilled to work with Sohyun and Daniella on moving this critically important research forward,” said ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen.

“This research will help all of us in the landscape architecture community make the strongest case possible with policymakers, community groups, allied professionals, and the public,” said ASLA President Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA. “We’ll have the best science and performance data on hand.”

The goals of the research reviews are to:

  • Understand and summarize the current state of knowledge.
  • Synthesize the research literature and provide insights, leveraging key data- and science-based evidence.
  • Create an accessible executive summary for policymakers, community advocates, and practicing landscape architects.

About the Grant Awardees

Dr. Daniella Hirschfeld

“Well-designed places, such as parks with large shade trees, can alleviate the experience of extreme heat caused by the climate crisis. To make these designs a reality, we need to understand their effectiveness and the multiple benefits they can provide,” Dr. Hirshfeld said.

Dr. Daniella Hirschfeld, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at Utah State University. Daniella received her PhD in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning from University of California, Berkeley. Her PhD was funded by the McQuown Fellowship at UC Berkeley and the State of California’s Ocean Protection Council. She received her master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and her bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy at Dartmouth College. Daniella also has professional experience in coastal zone management, sustainability planning, and urban planning.

Daniella is currently working with teams of collaborators on projects related to urban heat islands. She is working on an urban heat island mapping campaign funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – Urban Heat Island Mapping Program, focused on understanding the inequities in the distribution of urban heat experiences in Salt Lake City. She is collaborating with climate scientists at Utah State University; non-profits; departments in Salt Lake City’s government; and science groups, including the Utah Climate Center, the Tracy Aviary, and the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Daniella is also working on “the injustice in the void spaces,” which surfaces the hidden inequities of poorly distributed climate science services. Her team has investigated the information and resources needed to design cities resilient to urban heat. She is collaborating with a team at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – Applied Science Program and the Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) on this research.

Dr. Sohyun Park

“As stewards of the land, we have the ability and privilege to restore and revitalize spaces that benefit both humans and non-human species. The biodiversity crisis is often not readily perceptible in our daily lives, so I hope the results of this research will provoke deep contemplation about the alarming state of biodiversity loss, foster a sense of global interconnectedness, and inspire greater action,” said Dr. Park.

Dr. Sohyun Park, ASLA, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Connecticut. She earned her Ph.D. degree in Environmental Design and Planning from Arizona State University, a Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture from Seoul National University, and a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from Sookmyung Women’s University. She is a SITES Accredited Professional.

Sohyun’s research focuses on the intricate interplay between natural and human systems, with a particular focus on sustainability, resilience, and the health of ecosystems and communities. Her research aims to advance our understanding of how urban morphology, functions, and changes influence ecosystem services, as well as their interactions with human well-being. Her research centers around urban biodiversity, seeking solutions to address the biodiversity crisis.

Sohyun has secured grants from the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Her work has been featured in the journals Nature Scientific Report, Landscape and Urban Planning, and Applied Geography. She has delivered plenary presentations at major international conferences, including the 2022 International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) World Congress, the 2022 International Symposium of Landscape Architecture, and the 2022 International Garden Symposium.

Sohyun holds several leadership roles, including Co-Chair of the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture NE1962 National Multi-State Research Group; Chair of the ASLA Ecology and Restoration Professional Practice Network; and Vice President of the Global Landscape Architecture Network. She was Chair of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) conference tracks (2016-2022).

About the Grant Process

The national competitive grant for biodiversity loss received seven research proposals from academics at U.S. universities. The national competitive grant for extreme heat received nine proposals.

ASLA wishes to thank the selection and review panels for their contributions selecting the grant awardees and peer-reviewing the research:

Biodiversity Loss

  • Dr. James A. LaGro, Jr., PhD, Professor, Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture, College of Letters & Sciences, University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Editor-in-Chief, Landscape Journal
  • Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, Professor, Director, Ecological Design Lab, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Toronto Metropolitan University; Founding Principal, PLANDFORM.
  • Ebru Özer, ASLA, Associate Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture + Environmental and Urban Design, Florida International University, and ASLA Vice President of Education
  • Dr. Susan Sherrod, PhD, Senior Ecologist, Professional Wetland Scientist, and Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner, Biohabitats

Extreme Heat

  • Dr. Wenwen Cheng, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture, College of Letters & Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Dr. James A. LaGro, Jr., PhD, Professor, Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture, College of Letters & Sciences, University of Wisconsin – Madison, and Editor-in-Chief, Landscape Journal
  • Ebru Özer, ASLA, Associate Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture + Environmental and Urban Design, Florida International University, and ASLA Vice President of Education

Next Generation of Landscape Architecture Leaders Focus on Climate, Equity, and Technology (Part I)

Ellinikon Metropolitan Park / Sasaki

“Our fellows have shown courage, written books, founded mission-driven non-profits, created new coalitions, and disseminated new tools,” said Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in her introduction of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership program at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Sanders highlighted the results of a five-year assessment of the LAF fellowship program and its efforts to grow the next generation of diverse landscape architecture leaders. The assessment shows that past fellows are shaping the future of the built environment in key public, non-profit, and private sector roles.

And she introduced the latest class of six fellows, who focused on climate, equity, technology, and storytelling:

Chris Hardy, ASLA, senior associate at Sasaki, used his fellowship to significantly advance the Carbon Conscience tool he has been developing over the past few years. The web-based tool is meant to help landscape architects, planners, urban designers, and architects make better land-use decisions in early design phases when the opportunity to reduce climate impacts is greatest.

Carbon Conscience is also designed to work in tandem with the Pathfinder tool, created by LAF Fellow Pamela Conrad, ASLA, as part of Climate Positive Design. Once the parameters of a site have been established, Pathfinder enables landscape architects to improve their designs and materials choices to reach a climate positive state faster.

Hardy examined more than 300 studies to develop robust evidence to support a fully revamped version of Carbon Conscience, which will launch in July 2023. He found that “landscape architecture projects can be just as carbon intensive as architecture projects per square foot.” He wondered whether the only climate responsible approach is to stop building new projects altogether. “Are new projects worth the climate cost?”

After months of research, he believes decarbonizing landscape architecture projects will be “very hard,” but not impossible. He called for a shift away from the carbon-intensive designs of the past. To reduce emissions, landscape architects need to take a “less is more” approach; use local and natural materials; and increase space in their projects for ecological restoration, which can boost carbon sequestration. He cited Sasaki’s 600-acre mega-project in Athens Greece — the Ellinikon Metropolitan Park — as a model for how to apply Carbon Conscience, make smart design decisions, and significantly improve carbon performance upfront. “There are exciting design opportunities — this is not just carbon accounting.”

Ellinikon Metropolitan Park / Sasaki
Ellinikon Metropolitan Park / Sasaki

Landscape architect Erin Kelly, ASLA, based in Detroit, Michigan, sees enormous potential in using vacant land in cities for carbon sequestration. Her goal is to connect vacant lands with the growing global offset marketplace, which offered 155 million offsets in 2022 that earned $543 million. And she sees opportunities for landscape architects to work with carbon developers to improve offset projects.

Carbon offsets are purchased by organizations to reduce their climate impacts. One offset credit equals one ton of greenhouse gas emissions. Offsets are verified by third-party verification companies and then listed on carbon registries. Like other projects, there are carbon developers, who purchase or lease land to grow trees or protect natural carbon sinks, like wetlands. Projects are monitored, usually over a 25 to 100 year period. But there is no one price for an offset, and “the quality varies,” Kelly said.

There is a need for new approaches to offsets that generates more direct income for communities and incentivizes landscape health by factoring in biodiversity. Sequestering carbon in cities like Detroit provides an opportunity for urban communities to benefit, but to date urban offset programs like City Forest Credits have been limited and need to be scaled up.

The vision / Erin Kelly, ASLA

She estimates that 31 million people in the U.S. now live in vacant land communities. Using machine learning and satellites, Kelly is developing a national atlas of vacant land ripe for redevelopment as offsets by city governments, community groups, and companies. “Landscape architects haven’t been involved in setting up these offerings,” but can tell “compelling stories” and influence how they are developed. Locally-managed, small-scale offsets can provide greater financial benefits and community health and environmental co-benefits.

Local connections to offsets / Erin Kelly, ASLA
National offsets that enhance biodiversity / Erin Kelly, ASLA

Robert Levinthal, a PhD student at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), is focused on Mega-Eco Projects, or very large-scale nature-based solutions. Hundreds of these projects, like the Great Green Wall in Sub-Saharan Africa, are in development at different scales around the world. They are meant to combat desertification, protect biodiversity and connect habitat, and preserve and restore watersheds. They may be in urban or rural areas.

Mega-Eco Projects / Robert Levinthal and Richard Weller

Unfortunately, few landscape architects are involved in these projects. For Levinthal, this means the project leaders are “missing critical insights,” as landscape architects can help ensure these massive projects balance the needs of humans and non-human species. Landscape architects can plan and design the connections between large-scale natural systems and communities.

In Senegal, Levinthal explored the implications of the Great Green Wall himself. Initially proposed in the 1950s, the plan envisions a 50-kilometer-wide belt of trees from the east to west coasts in Sub-Saharan Africa as an anti-desertification measure that will prevent the Sahara Desert from further expanding south. The African Union, which supports the initiative, has scaled down the effort but it still remains ambitious — with the goal of restoring 100 million hectares of land and storing 250 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But Levinthal noted that out of $14 billion spent on the Great Green Wall to date, just $20 million has reached Senegal. And desertification is happening outside the Great Green Wall area.

Mega-Eco Projects / Robert Levinthal

Levinthal sees the need to better connect green belt planning with community master planning and eco-tourism development. Senegal, like other Sub-Saharan African countries, is “sadly missing landscape architects and urban designers” who can weave parks, community spaces, recreational areas, and transportation systems into ecological restoration efforts.

The need for regional planning around the Great Green Wall in Senegal / Robert Levinthal

And pastoralists remain deeply underserved. He called for a renewed focus on regional and land-use planning among landscape architects and deeper partnerships with indigenous peoples. To learn more, look out for an upcoming symposium at UPenn, October 13-14, 2023.

Read Part II

With Climate-Smart Design, Less Is More

Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson

“We try to be light on the land. We try to do minimal engineering, with minimal impact. We try to design less. This is part of the decarbonization process. This is part of climate action for the profession of landscape architecture,” explained Jenny Jones, ASLA, with landscape architecture firm Terremoto.

In Laguna Beach, Califonia, Terremoto designed a low-carbon, low-impact, no-waste 4-acre public landscape for the Laguna Canyon Foundation, an organization dedicated to “preserving, protecting, enhancing, and promoting the 22,000-acre South Coast Wilderness.”

“A mantra of our office is the inverse of Daniel Burnham’s ‘Make no little plans’ quote. Our rebuttal is ‘Make no big plans’, said David Godshall, ASLA, a leader of the firm.

“Our office increasingly believes that the best future landscapes and gardens need to be of a replicable small scale, as materially closed-loop as possible, avoid bureaucratic red tape, and be of, by, and for the communities and creatures they serve.”

The Laguna Canyon landscape was a “hurt site,” Jones said. Once an illegal dump, rain helped pull waste down the hillside. But that changed when the Foundation leased the public land and began a multi-year process of clean-up and ecological restoration.

The machines used in the clean-up effort left three terraces, which Terremoto decided not to change. “The site had been through a lot of trauma, so we decided to take a quiet, loving approach,” Jones said. To manage stormwater, Terremoto worked with the terraces and also designed a network of bioswales lined with local stones, which Jones called “softer and amorphous.”

Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson

“Our approach to grading and drainage was really to minimize grading altogether and simply bolster existing natural drainage patterns. This meant less machinery and carbon, and required we work with the land and the existing conditions rather than impose a new, bold thing,” Godshall said.

Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson

California’s record rainfall caused by a series of atmospheric rivers also meant the firm needed to return later to modify the design of some swales. Jones sees this as a plus.

She said Terremoto’s goal is to take an iterative approach, based in continuous stewardship, rather than go in with a “build it and never return” mindset that results in the “hard engineering found in many Californian coastal projects.”

Jones wanted to give the site room to adapt and evolve. For her, that demonstrates true climate responsibility. “We need to continue to participate with the site. It’s not finished. This is what stewardship is about.”

Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson

Climate considerations, along with a limited budget, led the firm to source many materials locally and use what was available. Local materials means lower embodied carbon, as there are less greenhouse gas emissions released from transporting materials.

Timber logs have become benches. They were produced by Angel City Lumber, a company based in Los Angeles that reuses city trees felled by drought, disease, or age.

Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson

“So many trees in Los Angeles are coming down but they can be salvaged and repurposed instead of sent to the landfill,” Jones said. Due to smart material choices, the carbon sequestered in the trees has been saved. And reusing the trees eliminated the climate impacts of sourcing new materials.

The project includes both stone found on the site and stone brought in from another project, where too much was ordered by mistake. “Laguna Canyon is about no waste; we found a way to use it.” But the stone trucked in was still local, originally sourced from a quarry in Santa Paula, 100 miles away. Gravel and rip rap also traveled a similar distance to the project site.

Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson
Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson

Above the terraces, the form of four simple wood structures was guided by both function and beauty. The Foundation restoration team had been operating out of a trailer but needed new structures to support trail and field work. The wood structures serve as a place to store “cacti pups” — cuttings from grown cacti that will take root elsewhere — and native plant seedlings.

Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson
Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson

New landscape plantings near the structures were designed to blend with the existing native landscape but also modified in places to accommodate the needs of the fire department. “Fire fighters don’t love native plants because they have evolved with fire so they are combustible. This is a contradiction.”

Wood steps and trails then take visitors down to a hollow where the Foundation had cleared an area taken over by invasive ice plants. Once the invasives were removed, “we wanted to put something back. To us, it felt like a destination,” Jones said.

Now, the space, ringed with the reclaimed timber logs, features a wood circle made from FSC-certified Western red cedar wood, “most likely from the Pacific Northwest or Canada,” Godshall said.

Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Beach, California. Terremoto / Caitlin Atkinson

Here, one of the limitations of the wood market for landscape architects became apparent. “Using local wood is often counterintuitively more expensive, as the producers of local woods are generally small businesses with greater overhead than, say, a giant lumber mill in Canada that can operate with a problematic brute efficiency.”

The space is used for gatherings among the Foundation staff and the public. And the nearby K-8 school brings students here for outdoor classes.

“Given the present environmental situation, our office believes that we should be championing the beauty of modesty in gardens, modesty in material choices, but also in the scale of a project,” Godshall said.

The firm’s philosophy is in part inspired by landscape architect Julie Bargmann, the inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Prize winner, who has called for designing with modesty.

For Jones, modesty means landscape architects need to design within their means. “We need to treat the Earth like a body. You don’t redesign a body to take care of it. Look at projects with a stewardship lens, rather than a ‘capital D’ design lens.”

Dept. of Homeland Security Designates Landscape Architecture a STEM Discipline

ASLA 2020 Professional Research Honor Award. Seeding Specificity: Materials and Methods for Novel Ecosystems. Baltimore, Maryland. Mahan Rykiel Associates. Client: Maryland Department of Transportation and Maryland Port Administration

The designation recognizes the high degree of science, technology, engineering and mathematics course work required in landscape architecture collegiate programs

By Lisa Hardaway

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has designated landscape architecture a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degree program. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) advocated for the designation.

“Landscape architecture applies science, technology, cutting edge research, and engineering principles, to design healthy communities, active transportation projects, campuses and parks. We help communities adapt to climate driven extreme weather and support biodiversity,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “The infrastructure challenges in municipalities across the country are enormous —landscape architects bring transformative solutions. Today’s decision will advance landscape architecture education and practice, and that is great for America and the global community.”

Landscape architecture programs are pioneering some of the most innovative research and developing new technologies – from using artificial intelligence for urban agriculture, to urban planning for autonomous vehicles; to hydraulic modeling, robotic fabrication, and augmented reality for water bodies, and more.

“The STEM designation finally reflects the reality of the discipline of landscape architecture. Our work is fully dependent on science and technology, from understanding soils at the level of microbial interactions and nutrient exchanges, which keep our urban canopy alive, to coastal adaptations informed by continuously evolving climate data,” said Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, the Peter Louis Hornbeck Professor in Practice and Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “This new designation brings with it greater opportunities for students and graduates throughout the United States and beyond to become leaders in the field.”

“Landscape architects have incredible responsibility for the health, safety and well-being of communities which is why it’s imperative for landscape architects to continue to be licensed to practice,” said Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA, President of ASLA. “The STEM designation will be an additional tool in helping decision-makers understand the rigor this discipline demands.”

View the application materials ASLA submitted

Interview with Sara Zewde: “I Find a Lot of Creative Inspiration from People and Place”

Sara Zewde, ASLA / Studio Zewde

Sara Zewde, ASLA, is founder of Studio Zewde, a design firm practicing landscape architecture, urbanism, and public art. She is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Over the past few years, you have led the reinterpretation of Frederick Law Olmsted as part of Olmsted 200. You just signed a contract for a new book on Olmsted and his journeys through the South, which he documented in The Cotton Kingdom. Your book is tentatively entitled Finding Olmsted and will be published by Simon & Schuster. Can you tell us about your interest in him?

To be honest with you, I did not pursue landscape architecture because of Olmsted, nor did I have a burning desire to work on Olmsted after learning about him. What happened was that I learned about Olmsted’s time in the South, writing about the conditions of slavery as a correspondent for The New York Times, in passing. I grew up in the South, and while I studied urban sociology, city planning, and landscape architecture, the South wasn’t very present in the curriculum formation. And yet, “the South got something to say,” to quote Andre 3000, if I may.

From there, I started to investigate Olmsted’s travels through the South, finding that he returned from his travels just prior to embarking on his career in landscape architecture. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there must be a connection between what he saw in the South and his conception of landscape architecture, so I tried to figure what that connection might be.

Retracing Olmsted’s journey through the South / Sara Zewde

I would go on to learn that Olmsted’s travels south pulled many of his interests in land, political economy, and civic society together for him, propelling him towards a practice of landscape architecture. He returned from the South with a clarified conviction in the significance of public space in a postbellum society. He translated that conviction into a landscape design for Central Park together with Calvert Vaux, which consequently, would go onto influence the larger American public park project. There’s a chain of influence that stems from the South.

At the ASLA 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture, you guided landscape architects through the history of Seneca Village, the predominantly black community that was displaced by the New York City government to make way for Central Park. Then, you said “communities and their histories aren’t erased; they exist in plain sight, if you look.” How can landscape architects partner with communities to better show what exists but may be unseen?

I revisited the places Olmsted visited when he traveled to the South 165 years ago. Among the things that I found across these sites were the ways landscape architecture has been used to obscure the presence of slavery. So, in an ironic twist of fate, Olmsted’s profession has become the tool for untelling the stories about America that Olmsted wanted to tell in his writing. So it occurred to me: Can Olmsted’s landscape architecture also be the tool to tell those stories?

Seneca Village, in a sense, has not been erased. The landscape doesn’t lie. Remnants of people’s daily lives are still present in the park, and moreover their descendants walk among us. It’s up to us to acknowledge that. I believe landscape architecture can be a tool for heightening the presence of what is already there.

Map of Seneca Village / NYC Municipal Archives, via NY1

Your work seems largely focused on strengthening communities’ connection to their own histories, thereby empowering them and increasing their resilience to future challenges. Instead of taking a design-first approach, you take a community-first approach. In a video with PBS, you said your goal is to ensure your body of work, in totality, doesn’t say anything. Why take this approach?

There are so many cultures underrepresented in design pedagogy and practice. Part of the insistence on my part about not having a design signature so to speak is that our office really tap into the particular place, people, ecology, and cultural context. It helps us challenge some of the quiet constraints we’ve inherited about space and design.

There is a latent genius expressed in the spatial patterns of their daily lives. I find a lot of creative inspiration from people and place, and I challenge myself in my practice to tap into that more than anything else. It unravels creative approaches to designing landscapes that are unique, that support ecological systems, and are affirming for people.

This is important particularly for groups who have not been served by the design professions historically. It is of critical value to have your presence honored, and your way of life supported by the environment around you. Many of us live in a society that wasn’t designed for us to flourish in. What does it look like if it is?

In Philadelphia, you have been working with community groups and graffiti artists to protect Graffiti Pier from climate change. You purposefully framed your planning and design work with the community using that language. How did you overcome community fears that you would alter the character of a beloved community arts space? How is Graffiti Pier a model for other urban climate justice and adaptation work?

Graffiti Pier is feeling pressure from all sides. From the land, it’s coming from intense development pressure and land value appreciation. From the sea, it’s sea level rise and increasingly severe storm events. On the pier itself, the structure is decaying.

We communicated early with folks: “This project is your chance to save Graffiti Pier. If you do nothing, all of these pressures are going to collapse on this thing.”

We have been having one-on-one conversations with graffiti writers, or in small groups, and fielding anonymous emails, phone calls, and representatives, wanting to respect the fact that many graffiti writers and street artists have been criminalized for their use of the site.

(Before) Graffiti Pier, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Client: Delaware Waterfront Corporation / Studio Zewde

In the Graffiti Pier context, there was an opportunity to introduce this intertidal landscape, remove the bulkheads, and allow the shift of the park upland as the tides continue to rise. That really offers the artists an opportunity, with new sea walls, to engage the rising tides while expanding available surfaces for art.

But that idea’s very specific to this context, and that’s the takeaway for me. I wouldn’t go into any situation and say “here’s how to do it.” I go into every situation working to tailor an approach that feels appropriate to its place.

For other communities facing managed retreat from climate impacts, we need to understand the specific conditions, complexities, and nuances of each place. Within those places, we need to learn what’s important and what’s not important and understand the ways in which a community already lives dynamically and adaptively and design for that.

(After) Graffiti Pier, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Client: Delaware Waterfront Corporation / Studio Zewde
(After) Graffiti Pier, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Client: Delaware Waterfront Corporation / Studio Zewde

In addition to your design work with Studio Zewde, you’re an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design. There, you are the first-ever Black voting faculty member in landscape architecture. And as of 2020, you are one of 19 Black landscape architecture professors at accredited programs in the U.S. Since the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, how have you seen landscape architecture academia evolve? And what do you think still needs to happen?

Conversations about race and politics didn’t have as much room to breathe in the landscape architecture discipline before 2020. Students have become more politicized in their work, curricula have also evolved to some degree, the discourse around practice and engaging community is more present. But no meaningful change can happen in three years. This is a long struggle, and it didn’t start in 2020.

One of the ways I hope to see the profession grow is in our ability to work with policymakers and think about the impact of our work at various scales. Some of Olmsted’s work can be seen as an example of this. His book, The Cotton Kingdom, represents a model of seeing the landscape at many different scales, smaller and larger, politically and ecologically, and he often was an advocate for his projects.

Design is parallel to other major forms of change. Landscape architecture cannot be inward looking in this regard. We can’t design our way out of climate change or wealth inequity. It’s not just about design as an end, but it’s about design as a tool for change.

We need the language and tools to understand the relationship between power and what we do as landscape architects. We should really be thinking about ourselves in relationship to the outside world.

You grew up in Louisiana, the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants. Ethiopia has thousands of years of rich landscape architectural and architectural history. How do you think your New Orleans upbringing and Ethiopian heritage is reflected in your work?

I grew up in Slidell mostly. I lived in New Orleans as an adult. I saw life on my street and on my block. We closed down the block to have crawfish boils. I grew up seeing the parades, the festivals, the Second Lines. We had parks. We had yards. We had canals. We had levees. We had neutral grounds. That’s my understanding of landscape. This system of pieces of urban landscapes. I saw the ways in which these pieces can come together to form a theater for civic life and culture.

While I didn’t grow up in Ethiopia, my parents often would share stories about Ethiopia. I think absorbing the fact that Black people have thousands of years of history from those stories, coupled with the fact that I was living in a place so celebratory about its own Black culture, inspired a deep well of pride, a sense of self, in me as a kid.

I think there’s probably somewhat of a straight line from what my upbringing offered me in that regard and how I see the world and therefore practice landscape architecture today.