Contextual Minimalism: The Landscape Architecture of Coen+Partners

Coen + Partners Contextual Minimalism / Princeton Architectural Press

Contextual Minimalism, a new monograph from the landscape architecture firm Coen+Partners, presents the work of founder Shane Coen, FASLA, and his firm into a well-organized book encapsulating over 20 years of design projects. With photography, some drawings, and minimal text, it tells the story of how Coen’s design instinct developed into a design philosophy, and how that philosophy adapted to different design challenges, primarily in the upper mid-west.

Coen describes his firm’s work as the “celebration of nature through contrast, deduction, and abstraction,” an approach he’s come to call “contextual minimalism.” This approach is apparent in the firm’s use of contextually-appropriate blocks of color, texture, and mono-cultural plants.

Much of Coen’s work feels painterly, with broad strokes and deliberate dashes. Coen writes with appreciation of the impact his father, a painter, had on his approach towards landscape. On many of Coen’s larger projects, this approach works to stunning effect, as in Jackson Meadow. There, on the 365-acrea planned-unit development, Coen’s firm planted the entire property with little blue stem to create a “unified ground plane” for the development’s all-white structures: splotches of white among a field of seasonally fluctuating color.

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The architecture and landscape at Jackson Meadows / Peter Bastianelli Kerze

Even after many years, Jackson Meadows feels unique among Coen’s projects, and much of that has to do with how Coen, in this book and public lectures, has described it. More than any other project, Jackson Meadows feels like a sandbox, a testing ground for what was at the time Coen’s philosophy.

Collaboration with the project architect elevated Jackson Meadows. This sort of collaboration has been a mark of the firm since its inception. Coen explains that working on projects with powerful architecture “brought meaning” to his practice. You can attribute some of that meaning to the holistic achievements that result from successful collaboration. But Coen exhibits an admiration for architecture that feels unique among landscape architects. It provides inspiration and a datum from which to design.

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A residence in Jackson Meadows / Coen+Partners

Coen’s approach is often forced into tighter private and residential spaces. Still, there is an attention to materials and relationship between architecture and landscape architecture that bolsters these projects. In the Wood House in Chicago, Illinois, Coen uses blocks of color and material to blur the boundary between inside and outside.

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The Wood House / Christopher Barrett

The projects elucidate how Coen’s economical design approach shifts and adapts to different settings. In rural contexts, the preferred way of exalting nature is to contrast it with structures or work that is clearly artificial. In urban settings, the designer must abstract nature. If done well, the effect will be a sublime and uplifting experience.

One might dispute the logic behind this strategy, but not the results. Look at what is achieved in Minneapolis Central Library, which is hemmed in by depressingly-wide roads. Before, the approach to the library was routine at best and degrading at worst. Coen added slate gardens supporting a row of birch trees to the library’s north-facing sides. The jagged slate recalls Minnesota’s rugged terrain. Its layering and the pioneering birches suggests opportunity and positive disruption.

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The Minneapolis Central Library / Coen+Partners

Most monographs suffer from a surfeit of finished photographs in place of sketches and plans that provide real insight into the design process. Unfortunately, Contextual Minimalism does not deviate from this trend. But the book does allow one to see a clear connective thread between Coen’s projects, which is a significant achievement.

A New Vision of Coastal Resilience

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Structures of Coastal Resilience / Island Press

Structures of Coastal Resilience, a new book by landscape architect Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, engineer Guy Nordenson, and architect Julia Chapman, draws on years of research in design, art, policy, and engineering to argue for a new vision of our coasts. As an analysis of trends in representation, mapping, and coastal design work, the book more than justifies its existence. But it is the thought paid to the evolution of these subjects over time that affords the reader a new view of coasts and establishes Structures as a significant contribution to the body of research on coastal resilience.

Architecture critic Michael Kimmelman writes in the book’s introduction that “there is no bigger challenge today than the management of coastal ecologies.” Landscape architects have laudably embraced this challenge and the attendant challenges of environmental and social justice, with no more recent and prominent national example than the Resilient by Design: Bay Area competition. Structures’ authors have concerned themselves with questions of coastal resilience for over a decade — and much of their own design work is featured in the book. The resulting research spans ecology, policy-making, engineering, and design, all of which contribute the physical and institutional structures of resilience.

For someone unfamiliar with the topic of resilience or wondering why the treatment of our coasts needs addressing, the authors’ premise is clear. Our attitude toward the coast has generally been to seek steady conditions. But ecological resilience theory, along with our own observations of this centuries’ worst flooding events, proves that the steady state is a myth. Ecosystems are in constant flux between states. Our coastal works should reflect this reality, with design leading the way.

In order to do so, landscape architects must learn how to better represent the dynamism of the coast. Historically, landscape architects, engineers, and cartographers have relied on motifs of the hydrological systems as static, with a defined line between water and land. This in turn has contributed to our proclivity for sea walls and levees for flood defenses.

Dynamic representations suggest and inspire dynamic treatments of the coast. The authors mine recent history for examples of dynamic representation, from Harold Fisk’s Map of Ancient Courses of the Mississippi River Belt to coastal section drawings produced by landscape architects Anu Mathur and Dilip da Cunha. These drawings do away with the water/land boundary in favor of a gradient of conditions that shifts and pulses over time.

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A portion of sectional sketches through gradients along the Fall Line in Virginia. Each section illustrates the diverse transitions from water to land, and from high ground to low ground, in the region. / Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, University of Pennsylvania, Island Press

The authors provide a rich exploration of that gradient, its qualities and potential, in the chapter “Reimagining the Floodplain.” As they do with the subject of each chapter, the authors trace the history of ideas and attitudes towards the floodplain and evaluate new methods for engaging it as a site of design. The ideas profiled are speculative within reason, such as landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, and Rosetta Elkins’ coastal forests for Narragansett Bay, which faces issues of coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion. The strategy for increasing  resilience varies along the bay’s length, but generally relies on the planting of forests and shrub lands that attenuate high winds, reduce erosion, and shield community assets.

The strategies Van Valkenburgh and Elkins employ also involve moving community assets out of the floodplain. This strategic retreat from the coast will become more common as climate change exacerbates flood events. The authors also describe a strategy of adaptation through vertical retreat, which sees the lifting of buildings and critical infrastructure above the floodplain and, in phases, replaces lots and alleys with a system of canals and protective wetlands. Such strategies will have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but what emerges out of the book is a portfolio of ideas and novel thinking that one can imagine being adapted to certain contexts.

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“Amphibious Suburb” proposal for Chelsea Heights, a back-bay neighborhood of Atlantic City and a former salt marsh transformed by urban development. Phased future development would elevate roads and homes, create canals and wetlands, and construct protective edges. / Paul Lewis, Princeton University School of Architecture, Island Press

In the last couple of decades, the democratization of visualization technologies and data have helped to dissolve the boundaries between the disciplines involved with coastal resilience. This has provided landscape architects with exciting new ways of engaging with and designing for coastal environments. Using hydraulic modeling, bathymetric and topographical information, and environmental data, landscape architects can rapidly image an environment and the impact of proposed design interventions on that environment.

One crude example of this is the water tank model, which the authors used to evaluate a proposed intervention in Palisade Bay. While the method isn’t specific to the bay, the authors were able to design a series of wave-attenuating land forms, visualizing their effect on the Bay’s hydraulic conditions. The authors evaluate the impact of these and other technologies throughout the book.

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A water tank model allows experimentation, facilitating testing of the interaction of new landforms with current, tide, and storm surge. / Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt, and Adam Yarinsky, On the Water: Palisade Bay, 2010, Island Press

Structures of Coastal Resilience is an excellent collation of current design research and trends related to our coasts. And through historical analysis, ecological research, and an exploration of representation, the book suggests new ways of seeing and responding to the opportunities our coasts provide.

Resilient Design for Low-Income Communities

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Resilience for All / Island Press

In her new book Resilience for All: Striving for Equity through Community-Driven Design, author Barbara Brown Wilson seeks to confront the failings of traditional planning and design practices in vulnerable low-income communities. While others have pursued landscape-based solutions to this issue — think community gardens — Brown suggests there is a larger role for landscape architecture and urban design in resilient, equitable community development.

The communities featured in Resilience for All struggle with many of the same afflictions: environmental injustice, neglect, and lack of resources. These are vulnerable communities that face high exposure to economic and environmental shocks and disinvestment. Landscape and urban design improvements are relatively cheap, widely-accessible method of addressing these issues. Green infrastructure and streetscape improvements figure prominently in the book’s many case studies.

Importantly, Brown believes there is a fundamental relationship between social and ecological systems that, when leveraged, benefit both communities and their environments.

Consider the case of Cully, a low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that suffers from flooding streets, a lack of sidewalks, and languishing parks. Gentrification is also making its inroads.

Ordinarily, progress on the infrastructure front might invite gentrification. But a neighborhood coalition of community members and non-profits has made a point of linking infrastructure goals with wealth-building and anti-displacement goals. This means new parks associated with new affordable housing, construction on these projects performed by community members, and training provided by community organizations. This holistic approach has led to notable successes by Cully’s residents.

As Brown writes, green infrastructure improvements provide economic and health benefits. It’s logical to ensure those benefits serve communities directly and in as many ways as possible. Brown calls this approach “green infrastructure as antipoverty strategy.”

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Cully residents at work in the community garden / Barbara Brown Wilson

Resilience for All shows community development progress comes in phases, with one success usually priming the next.

In the neighborhood of Denby in Detroit, the local high school worked with non-profits to introduce urban planning and city improvements into the senior class curriculum. Students, concerned with local crime, initially set their sights on getting a nearby abandoned apartment building torn down. They aggregated resident organizations into the Denby Neighborhood Alliance and adopted a vision to target blight on a larger scale. They and thousands of volunteers combined efforts to board up vacant homes and reduce blight on more than 300 city blocks and used this cleanup effort to install wayfinding artwork and planter boxes to mark new safe routes to Skinner Playfield, their revitalized school playground.

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“Safe Routes to School” planter box at Skinner Playfield. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Landscape improvements did not come to these communities without considerable effort and without help from a network of friendly actors. And the projects often operate on a humble scale.

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Skinner Playfield network map. This diagram shows the variety of organizations Denby high school students worked with to achieve their desired outcomes. / Barbara Brown Wilson

Each case in Resilience for All represents innovation and progress for the communities and is fleshed out by a mix of empirical research and Brown’s own analysis to paint a picture of what worked, what didn’t, and how those lessons might be absorbed and applied elsewhere. Resilience for All is also bookended by two useful sections: a brief history of community-driven design and an encapsulation of the case studies’ lessons.

Resilience for All is a useful handbook for landscape architect’s wondering how their skill sets might apply to community-led planning and design. It demonstrates how landscape can be a powerful resource for vulnerable communities. And it also shows how communities can positively impact landscapes.

Designing for the Other Four Senses

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The Senses: Design Beyond Vision / Princeton Architectural Press

The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, a new book from designers and curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, is a compelling survey of the emerging field of sensory design. The book accompanies an interactive exhibit of the same name by the authors on display at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum through October 28th. While The Senses is not quite the manifesto for multi-sensory design practice its authors claim it to be, the book captures the poetics and science of sensory design and in doing so conveys some useful lessons for landscape architects.

Sensory design’s historically-narrow application has broadened as our own understanding of the senses has gained sophistication. Add to that the potential of emerging technologies to create and augment sensory experiences, along with the urgent need for more inclusive design, and you have the swell in popular attention the field is currently experiencing.

It’s worthwhile to ask whether, as landscape architects, we are guilty of treating hearing, taste, scent, and touch as second-class senses. Put to any landscape architect that the senses other than sight are important and you’re likely get a nod of agreement. What isn’t as clear is whether this acknowledgment commonly manifests in our design work.

Sensory experience commands greater consideration in landscape architecture than most design fields, and so landscape architects are better attuned to their designs’ effect on the senses. But we often conceive of and deploy landscape architecture as a palliative to harsher environments than rich sensory environments in and of themselves. As to how we might improve and innovate in this regard, The Senses offers some inspiration.

The first step is to bring to sensory design the same level of critical thought brought to visual and spatial design. What are the qualities of an environment where all five senses have been weighted equally in the design process, not simply manufactured under “the tyranny of the eye”?

The Senses features an interesting case study in San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually impaired. There, light and space are maximized, materials are chosen for their acoustic properties over their appearance, and details such as tapered handrails and textured steps are integral elements, not tacked-on details.

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Stairwell, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 2015 / Photo by Don Fogg.  The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

One recurring practice among The Senses’ featured designers that has an application for landscape is layering. Layering allows for the creation of environments rich with hierarchy and nuance.

Snarkitecture’s undulating wallpaper, Topographies, is one example, as is the Rich Willing Brilliant Studio’s attitude towards lighting. According to these designers, sound, smell, light, flavors, and texture can be layered to form thresholds and barriers, ceilings and corridors. If this seems architectural, that’s intentional. Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel stresses the multi-dimensional quality scents take on when layered and allowed to develop volume. Laudamiel is a master of evoking landscapes with his scents, such as meadows dense with wildflowers and the Bosporus Strait.

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Topographies, 2017/ Photo courtesy of Calico Wallpaper. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

If there’s one project in the book the offers a more grounded idea of how landscape architecture and sensory design can interface, it is Tactile City. Expanding on existing tactile paving systems, Tactile City illustrates how streetscapes can be designed to benefit the visually impaired. Highly-textured paving tiles can signal features of the environment to someone relying on a walking stick. Indications of street furniture, bus stops, or construction can be imprinted in the landscape. “Sensory design can shape the beauty and function of a place – and address dangers and obstacles,” the authors write.

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Tactile City, 2015 / Image courtesy of Theodore Kofman. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

Much of the exhibition and book is concerned with new technologies: The Scent Player, emitting smells instead of music,  or a device that converts reverberations against the skin into dialogue for the deaf. These technologies, while not immediately translatable to landscape architecture, underscore the fluid nature of our senses. The authors do an excellent job of conveying how senses feed and play off of one another. Sights can trigger smells can trigger tastes, with past experience setting some of the rules for these exchanges.

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Scent Player, Cyrano, 2017 / Photo by Wayne Earl Chinnock. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

Experience of the landscape should engage all of our senses. Sensory design is about maximizing that experience and making sure others of differing abilities can as well. The Senses is a worthwhile read for landscape architects wanting to pursue these goals.

The Desert Gardens of Steve Martino

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Desert Gardens of Steve Marino / Monacelli Press

The work of landscape architect Steve Martino, FASLA, derives its interest and relevance from a simple notion: the desert landscape should be celebrated, not ignored. This notion is expertly manifested in the 21 gardens featured in the new book Desert Gardens of Steve Martino, edited by Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, and photographed by Steve Gunther.

Gunther’s photographs give great insight into how a desert garden can not only be robust but even lush. It’s Martino’s brisk and charming introduction, however, that provides the book’s greatest insight into the catalogued projects.

Martino came to landscape by way of architecture, which he studied at Arizona State University in the 1960s. It was through this education that Martino says he experienced a set of epiphanies.

The first epiphany was that landscape was mostly eyewash. A client could spend tremendous amounts of money and achieve a sub-par result.

Another was: why weren’t all architects also landscape architects? It seemed irresponsible to leave the site design to someone else. Martino pursued this instinct, working for architectural firms on their site designs.

And, lastly — as for the native desert plants he was told to avoid using — Martino suspected they held more potential than expected.

This suspicion was confirmed by Ron Gass, a nursery-owner with an encyclopedic knowledge of native desert plants, whom Martino holds in great esteem. Martino, out of a job at one point during the 1970s, went to work at Gass’ nursery and learned as much as he could.

In the meantime, Martino marketed himself as a designer of “outdoor space,” a term many of the architects he interviewed with found unnerving. Much like the desert gardens Martino wished to promulgate, outdoor space seemed an oxymoron.

Martino persisted and received opportunities to expand the use of desert plants in his work, “connecting a project to the adjacent desert.” Their use did much more, Martino soon realized. They lent his projects an ecological intelligence and environmental stability that only proved more prescient in the following decades.

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Many of Martino’s projects reinforce the connection between the garden and their larger landscape context, like this example from Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

Martino’s work often juxtaposes desert vegetation with architectural structures, a relationship he describes as “weeds and walls.” One such example is the Palo Cristi garden, where the heavy influence of architect Luis Barragán, as requested by the garden’s owners, can be seen. The simple, clean lines of Martino’s walls frame and complement spindly, spiky plants that seem like colorful guests at a garden party. Sun is a design material that Martino deploys or limits in turn.

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The Barragán-inspired walls of Palo Crisit Garden / The Monacelli Press

Martino often plays up the space demanded by desert vegetation — the effect is to put certain specimens on display. And sculptural works are used to reinforce the character of these plants. In the Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona, steel rebar evoking woody desert plants crowns a fireplace.

Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

In other instances of Martino’s work, the hand of the designer is adroitly hidden behind a more naturalistic planting scheme. The Greene-Sterling Garden, also in Paradise Valley, Arizona, features desert trees that were allowed to grow to the ground, much the way they would grow in their natural habitat. This also did away with the need for understory plants.

When Martino started out, he had to argue for the incorporation of environmental intelligence such as this into his design work. The ensuing decades have proved Martino right.

Landscape Observatory: The Work of Terence Harkness

Landscape Observatory: The Work of Terry Harkness / Applied Research & Design

Landscape Observatory: The Work of Terence Harkness deftly presents the work, and, perhaps more interestingly, the design process of renowned landscape architect Terence Harkness, FASLA. The book, edited by Elen Deming, FASLA, director for the new doctor of design program at the College of Design at North Carolina State, unfolds in a nonlinear but cohesive way to tell the story of Harkness, the inveterate observer, teacher, and practitioner whose designs are truly of their place.

With Harkness, observing, teaching, and practicing are linked, according to Deming. Harkness has a “penchant for design as a form of teaching—to compel us to really see the landscape we inhabit.” Harkness’ body of work forms an observatory from which we might gaze out at the landscape.

Regionalism is distinctive in Harkness’ work. The region Harkness’ work most commonly addresses is the Midwest. The editors describe him as a “prairie savant,” and this expertise surfaces in “An East Central Illinois Garden.” Harkness drew his inspiration for this conceptual project from the Illinois landscape.

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Plan for a Suburban Garden, which draws on themes developed in “An East Central Illinois Garden” / landscapeandurbanism.com

Seemingly-ordinary qualities of the Illinois landscape—the ground fog of late fall, the strong silhouette of winter trees against the sky, the changing patterns of the agricultural fields—are visualized and dignified.

He also constantly reconfigured the elements of this design. While it remained conceptual, aspects of it — and lessons it taught — surfaced in built projects such as the Gelvin Garden at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Gelvin Garden at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign / Krannert Art Musem

Harkness’ critical regionalism has never been restricted to one region. In 2000, Harkness worked with a team of faculty and students at the University of Illinois to develop a master plan for the Taj Mahal Cultural Heritage District. In interview excerpts, Harkness describes how he and his team were determined to walk every bit of the site to better understand it. “A large part of it was open latrine fields. We insisted on seeing every part of it,” Harkness recalls.

This deference to the site provided Harkness and the team the ability to fine tune their design. The book speaks of Harkness’ process as one of constant iteration. Designs are to be drawn, tested, redrawn, and retested. And so a coherent landscape emerged from what had been unfamiliar and chaotic.

The book is filled with Harkness’ drawings, hand-drawn perspectives that privilege the ground-level view of the landscape over the plan view. In a portion of the book devoted to his teaching career, Harkness describes practices he employed to instill this preference for the experience over the optics of the plan in his students.

One such practice was to have students begin the design process by writing out what experiences they wanted visitors to the site to have. Another was to draw vignettes of different landscapes and order and re-order them to tell a different story.

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Harkness’ distinctive sketches / landscapeandurbanism.com

Landscape Observatory benefits from several vignettes, as well. A different contributor writes each of the book’s chapters, giving different perspectives on Harkness’ work. Douglas Johnston, professor and chair of landscape architecture at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, contributes a chapter on the Emiquon Preserve in Illinois, a project on which he worked on with Harkness.

Emiquon Preserve / Experience Emiquon

The final design proposal occupied less than three percent of the preserve. What the project impressed upon Johnston was Harkness’ ability to see the landscape without preconceptions or judgement. “Harkness derives design forms directly from the existing landscape. The design is deeply, inseparably grounded to its context. The result is a familiar yet novel place.”

City Green: Public Gardens of New York

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City Green / Monacelli Press

A garden in any city is a special place. City Green: Public Gardens of New York, a new book by garden writer James Garmey, profiles some of the city’s most notable public gardens and green spaces. The pages are filled with photographs taken with the loving eye of Mick Hales, who captures well the serenity and beauty of large and small gardens alike.

Readers will know or have heard of several of the profiled spaces. The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, for example, maintains famously-enchanting gardens that sit at the heart of a medieval-style monastery in North Manhattan. Paley Park, too, has gained a reputation for the unique experience it provides. More a plaza than a traditional garden, Paley Park is perhaps the only place where one can find a waterfall tucked neatly between two midtown buildings.

Other gardens featured are less well known but worthy of inclusion. Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side sits in the shadow of Central Park, which is only eight blocks west. But its under-the-radar status adds to its charm. The park, originally the result of a Calvert Vaux design, languished during the 1970s. But it was revitalized through community engagement and renovated in 1992. The park now enjoys the dedicated attention of two full-time gardeners and a corps of volunteers. Garmey quotes a blogger when describing the Carl Schurz Park: “If this park was a guy, I’d be in love with him.”

Carl Schurz Park / Wikipedia

At the southern tip of Roosevelt Island lies another under-the-radar garden. Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park features a minimalist memorial garden with views of a changing Queens skyline. The memorial, designed by architect Louis Kahn and landscape architect Harriet Pattison, is as monumental and stoic one would expect. Garmey describes the garden as powerful in its simplicity.

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FDR Four Freedoms Memorial Garden softens Louis Kahn’s stark memorial design / FDR Four Freedoms Memorial Park

New York has several Japanese gardens, but the Noguchi Museum Garden in Long Island City, Queens, stands out for its sculptural works. The sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed not only the art works, but the park itself. The garden features several features of a traditional Japanese garden, included the generous use of gravel, but Garmey believes that it very much reflects Noguchi’s aesthetic: “meditative, playful, and filled with elegant shapes.”

Some of the featured gardens have successfully shed the conception of gardens as static creations. New York Botanical Garden’s native plant garden, for instance, is a site of tinkering and experimentation, according to its curator Michael Hagan.

“We have a mandate to monitor how plants respond to climate change,” Hagan says. He and his team treat the meadow as a work in progress and are comfortable adding and subtracting plants based on their projected sustainability.

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Part of New York Botanical Garden’s native plant garden / New York Botanical Garden

Garmey understands that green spaces and gardens come in a variety of forms. Green-Wood Cemetery, which occupies 478 acres in Brooklyn, offers the seclusion and beauty of any other garden amid 570,000 graves. The cemetery is equally as interesting as a case study in infusing English landscape style into a burial ground.

And, according to Garmey, Green-Wood helped inspire Central Park. The cemetery is lush and sprawling and, for over a century, has provided a habitat for wildlife and native vegetation. These attributes, as well as its ornate statuary, have made Green-Wood a popular destination.

Infinite Suburbia

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Infinite Suburbia / Princeton Architectural Press

Until recently, our city’s margins were neglected by researchers. Precisely how much neglect seems to have corresponded with the margin’s distance from its urban core, the city’s beating heart and a real draw for analytical minds. But Infinite Suburbia, a mammoth collection of 52 essays edited by MIT landscape architecture professor Alan Berger, geographer Joel Kotkin, and environmental urbanist Celina Balderas Guzman, seeks to elevate the discourse on our suburbs. The compendium is the result of a yearlong study at MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, and, like suburbia itself, is sprawling, often beautiful, and a bit relentless.

We have, over the last decade, heard repeatedly that the 21st century is the age of the city. But Infinite Suburbia’s editors rightly recognize the vast majority of people who have moved to cities do not populate the cores but rather the edges. In the United States, for example, 69 percent of the population lives in suburbs. Our edges are rapidly shifting and expanding, demanding meaningful evaluation.

Still, the term suburbia isn’t specific; it has a vagueness with which many of the essays engage. Historian Jon Teaford writes about the myth of the homogeneous suburb, noting that industrial suburbs differ from those pocketed with shopping malls or others that serve primarily as wealthy enclaves. The variety of activity present in suburbs today is as rich as the variety present in urban cores.

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Infinite Suburbia shows the potential of the suburbs to be both beautiful and ecologically less-impactful / Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald

Espen Aukrust Hauglin and Janike Kampevold Larsen, professors of urbanism and landscape at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, write about how in Norway, suburbia springs up in the pockets of limited spaces between geographical features. One clear example is the Grorud Valley. The valley’s history and geomorphology create a fabric of land use that contrasts with more traditional ideas of suburbia. In the valley, farmland, residential communities, and old mining infrastructure are adjacent to one another. Nature and recreation were large influences on the design of Norway’s satellite towns, so the path systems that gird these towns create a transition between the city and surrounding environment that enables recreation. Recent developments suggest that inner-city parks are gaining prominence in the valley, though.

Dr. Margaret Grose, landscape professor at the University of Melbourne, asks in her essay the pertinent question, “how can we design ecologically-richer suburbs?” It turns out biodiversity is not high on many planners lists of goals, if it’s considered at all. Grose suggests inverting the planning process so that ecological goals come first. Designing backwards through the planning stages and analysis can help give ecology its due in suburban design.

The expansion of cities outwards in the last few decades and the resultant land use change has been both rapid and irreversible. As both editor and author of Infinite Suburbia, Berger investigates how planners in the past sought to “belt” suburbia with agrarian and recreational landscapes.

But with the clustering of cities into polycentric city-regions, greenbelts are being ask to function in new and peculiar ways. Rather than serving as a container for development, greenbelts can connect regions. Berger warns that they must be employed intelligently and compatibly with demands for growth, or they risk being ineffectual. For some examples of greenbelting done right, Berger recommends the Brussels capital region of Belgium as well as Hamburg, Germany.

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One domestic example of a city-region attempting to belt its city is Atlanta’s BeltLine trail. / Beltline.org

Despite the potential ecological benefits of greenbelts or prioritizing biodiversity, experts still consider suburbia the most ecologically-destructive form of development. Consider the growth of the east coast megalopolis, a region defined decades ago by French geographer Jean Gottman, running from Washington, D.C. north to Boston. What habitat it hasn’t destroyed it has badly fragmented.

Alex Wall, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, asks in his essay what a counter-figure to this megalopolis might look like. While his essay doesn’t quite describe such a figure, it does make a strong argument for analyzing development at the regional scale in order to better understand the true ecological scope.

Book Review: Cityscapes of New Orleans

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LSU Press

Set Tulane University professor Richard Campanella down at any intersection in New Orleans, and he can likely deduce what economic, political, or environmental forces determined that street’s spatial qualities. This knowledge and much else has been inscribed in Campanella’s latest book, Cityscapes of New Orleans.

Cityscapes is a compendium of essays that examines New Orleans’ landscape through the lenses of design, planning, and history. It is more than a rote demonstration of knowledge, though. The book is an energetic engagement with Campanella’s two great passions: New Orleans and geography.

Geography, though it has taken a backseat in the landscape discourse, has the unsettling ability to illuminate the larger patterns and systems in which we’re embedded. Consider the work of Allen Gathman, a biology professor at SE Missouri State University. After the 2008 presidential election, Gathman took interest in a string of counties, arcing across the southeast United States, that Barack Obama had won. These blue counties, surrounded by a sea of red, coincided with the cotton belt of the antebellum south, and thus had a primarily black populace. And why was the soil in those counties so well-suited for cotton production? It is a loamy, alluvial soil, deposited by a cretaceous-era ocean, the coastline of which would roughly align with those same blue counties. Past, as they say, is prologue.

That is one example of the insight that geography affords; Cityscapes offers many such insights. Like Gathman, Campanella is interested in the “why behind the where.” Take Campanella’s investigation of New Orleans’ “accidental forest,” for instance. How did a 27-acre patch of remnant forest in the heart of Gentilly survive this long without being developed? A series of near-misses and happenstance, it turns out. But it’s a part of the tapestry of curiosities that add to the city’s character.

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Accidental forest

New Orleans’ larger geographic context is perhaps as interesting as the city itself, and Campanella devotes a section of the book to exploring aspects of New Orlean’s regional relationships. This includes a portrait of the “Ozone Belt,” a pinewood landscape upland of Lake Pontchartrain that city residents previously visited like a health retreat. Certain that the swamplands of Lake Pontchartrain were the source of miasmas and sickness in the city, New Orleans residents who could afford to would stay at therapeutic inns in the Ozone Belt and enjoy what they believed to be the curative properties of the pine’s effervescence.

Staying on the subject of swamps, Campanella also devotes several essays to how their presence and eventual draining impacted the city’s entire terrain. City-wide drainage began in the 1890s with the development of a sophisticated runoff system that funneled water into surrounding water bodies. The effect was “nothing short of revolutionary,” according to Campanella.

The result was the withdrawal of the swamplands and the migration of inhabitants into these areas. The unforeseen effect was soil subsidence, which triggered the collapse of certain built structures. Continued draining in the following century led to the subversion of in-ground infrastructure. “Topography matters,” Campanella writes.

Book Review: Paradoxes of Green

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Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State, a new book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, director of the masters in landscape architecture program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a successful hybrid of landscape writing and ethnography focused on the island nation of Bahrain. It presents a portrait of Bahrainis’ rich and evolving relationship with their landscape as well as a model for future studies.

“Landscape, when perceived through color, reveals aspects of relationships previously hidden,” Doherty writes in his book’s introduction. Paradoxes’ main inquiry is into Bahrain’s relationship with the color green. Why green? Because it’s associated with greenery, and greenery “is at the heart of the political struggles over the land,” Doherty tells us. Why Bahrain? “Bahrain is small.” Good enough.

While Doherty’s approach may seem like a gimmick, the results are truly novel. Situated in the milieu of ethnography, Doherty spends a year in Bahrain speaking with laborers, real estate developers, farmers, and government officials, constructing a forensic composite of green. The book satisfyingly explores green’s tendencies, as well as the social and built infrastructures that support it.

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Green carpet of house in Gafool, Manama. Photo by Gareth Doherty / University of California Press

If green is the book’s central character, then the central conflict revolves around water and its accompanying politics. Bahrain is seeking to maximize its green space and improve its sustainability metrics — these are admirable but directly conflicting goals. As it is, almost half of Bahrain’s freshwater goes towards watering lawns and washing cars in the hot, dusty city-state. Doherty figures that parks and roadside planting strips need 18 liters of water per day per square meter. Would Bahrain’s leaders be open to using grey water or native desert vegetation to conserve precious freshwater? That’s a step too far, at least for now. But as water’s strategic relevance overtakes oil’s in the Gulf, attitudes will change.

Before oil and the unsustainable pursuit of beautification in the form of lawns and noodle-shaped beaches, Bahrain’s green was most prominent in the form of date palm groves. The groves have diminished over the last century, but Doherty finds them still incredibly impactful. Their grey-green fronds stand in stark contrast to the surrounding environment, and their presence creates a micro-climate in the desert. In the past, the groves supported a culture that saw farmers name their trees as they would children. Their decline has coincided with the rise of residential compounds, some with green-painted roofs. Needless to say, Doherty is skeptical if this paint represents fair compensation for what’s been lost.

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Water channel, 1963, from Glob and the Garden of Eden. Torkil Funder, Moesgaard Museum / University of California Press

Doherty insists on walking to get where he’s going in Bahrain. He meticulously catalogs his encounters with green, and walking allows him to encounter very many. This penchant recalls similar tendencies in the writers Bruce Chatwin and Rory Stewart. Both are known for their travel writing (and, to greater and lesser extents, their interest in the Middle East).

Intentionally or not, there’s an element of the travelogue in Paradoxes. It’s no Road to Oxiana, nor does it aspire to be. It’s undeniable the book has benefited from its glimpses into Bahraini culture and life. Future writings on landscape would benefit from an ethnographic, travelogue approach.