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.

Visionary Landscapes: Japanese Garden Design in North America

Visionary Landscapes / Tuttle Publishing

In Visionary Landscapes: Japanese Garden Design in North America, Kendall H. Brown explores the work of five contemporary Japanese-style garden designers whom he has designated masters of the art.

What does it mean to be a master of the contemporary Japanese garden design? To answer this, once must consider what constitutes a Japanese garden. The first images that come to mind might be of bamboo, or perhaps coy fish, or raked patterns in gravel. Japanese gardens are more than their components, though; they are a set of principles. And because principles should be transferable, it is possible for Japanese gardens to manifest themselves in very un-Japanese ways.

As Brown notes, Japanese gardens nowadays are less microcosms of Japan than they are “Japanese-inspired microcosms of nature.” Hence the flourishing of Japanese gardens outside of Japan, to the extent that they outnumber those inside Japan.

There is of course a fraught social history of Japanese gardens in the West, one that Brown fully recognizes. Taken out of their regional and historical context beginning in the late 19th-century, Japanese gardens became curios and projections of status and sophistication (the irony being that constructing a Japanese garden can, at least now, be in questionable taste).

To suggest one has mastered the art of Japanese gardens is to therefore suggest mastery of the art’s principles, as well the ability to reapply those principles without creating, as Brown puts it, a “garish pastiche.”

Perhaps none of the designers featured in the book more deftly graft the Japanese style into the North American context than David Slawson. Born in Ohio, Slawson spent a number of years in Japan studying the art of garden design before returning to the mid-West and applying his knowledge on college campuses and residences.

In recounting the story of his time spent in Japan, Slawson speaks reverently of power: the power of the dry landscape at Daisen-in, the power of rocks “disposed in space” at Ryoanji. These gardens moved him, and his designs seek to reproduce that impact.

At the Hoeschler residence in Minnesota, Slawson evoked Lake Superior’s north shore with a formidable river of stones.

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David Slawson’s Hoeschler residence garden / Tuttle Publishing

Power can overwhelm, however, and this dramatic garden left the rest of the yard feeling weak. So Slawson complemented the initial design with an equally adamant garden entrance, replete with boulders that call to mind a north shore gorge.

Shin Abe, another of the book’s featured designers, has at times demonstrated a tremendous capacity to abstract the natural world. He pushes this traditional Japanese technique to its extreme at the Education First office building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the building’s entrance, slabs of stone suggesting frozen waves emerge from “dry” pools, geometric patterns filled with blackish aggregate and gravel. Low-sitting granite rectangles serve as benches, and the whole design gives the sense of water represented through rock.

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Shin Abe’s dry pools outside of EF Building II / Tuttle Publishing

Several of the book’s featured designers evoke Japanese landscape painting in their work. Marc Peter Keane’s Tiger Glen Garden, which refers to a work titled The Three Laughers of Tiger Ravine, possesses what Brown describes as a “gentle intensity.” A miniature stone ravine, patterned like a roman road, winds through the tiny courtyard garden, a rocky gash amidst moss and an elegantly-branching Tanyosho pine.

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Marc Pete Keane’s Tiger Glen Garden / Tuttle Publishing

For all the talk of adapting the Japanese style to North America, many of the book’s gardens are still loaded with features some might consider cliché: Sand raked just so, a smattering of Buddhist paraphernalia, the unmistakable preference for Ponderosa pine. And then there are the lanterns. Modest, often camouflaged, they beg not to be considered kitsch.

And maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe there is something we still don’t understand about our attraction to Japanese-style gardens, and how we can’t seem to adopt the principles without indulging in a bit of the exoticism that Japanese culture represents to the West. And maybe a little indulgence is good now and then.

Sowing Beauty: A Guide to Designing Meadows

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Sowing Beauty. Copyright 2017 by James Hitchmough. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

In Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed, James Hitchmough tells us about what we’ve lost. “Meadow-like vegetation” was once “much more abundant.” He traces its decline to industrial agriculture and development.

Hitchmough saw the design potential of meadow communities early in his career as a horticultural ecologist. He has spent the last few decades studying their characteristics and experimenting with their composition. The resulting knowledge compiled in Sowing Beauty will push meadow design forward.

Planting meadows is a departure from planting gardens. It isn’t planting with particularity; it’s painting with broad strokes. That isn’t to say meadows lack sophistication. Change can be observed in sown communities, and there is “nearly endless variation.” Spontaneity informs meadow communities more than gardens, which partially explains their charisma.

Artistic intention in the design of meadows appears through seed mixes, what you scatter on the soil to materialize a meadow. A good seed mix requires an understanding of how natural meadow communities occur and function. However, seed mixes don’t have to have to be identical to naturally-occurring communities. Hitchmough encourages experimenting with seemingly incongruous seeds to produce novel results.

Southern Hemisphere Garden, London Olympics park / James Hitchmough

“The choice of plants is the central challenge in all planting design,” Hitchmough writes. The planting site must factor heavily into any decisions. Meadows are complex communities, with ground, middle canopy, and upper emergent layers to consider.

Oxford Botanic Garden, UK / James Hitchmough
Meadow garden / James Hitchmough

Management of meadows must also be considered. Cutting helps manage weeds, but the cut material must be removed. Other practices, such as grazing and mowing are more suitable in some climactic zones or scales.

The complexity of meadows offers a lot of opportunities for the meadow designer, but also several possible pitfalls. Sowing Beauty, gracefully, does not deal in vagaries. Need to know a handful of species with high-design potential found within Rocky Mountain steppe communities? That’s on page 77.

The back half of the book is composed of case studies of Hitchmough’s own projects. Each case study is documented with species used, target numbers for seedlings, and the total plants required for each project. The projects discussed range in scale a from a couple hundred feet to over 24 acres (Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London). Each study has a “What Worked and What Didn’t” section, where Hitchmough discusses in detail the successes and failures of the project.

Planting a meadow / James Hitchmough
James Hitchmough at work / James Hitchmough

At one point during the film, I Heart Huckabee’s, the main character, an environmental activist, bemoans the over development of our landscape to the point “you can’t remember what happens when you stand in a meadow at dusk.”

“What happens in the meadow at dusk?,” asks an earnest Jonah Hill.

Some of us might smile at Hill’s ignorance, but too many others can relate. It would be wonderful if the advice and knowledge offered in Sowing Beauty resulted in many more of these endlessly-interesting and beautiful landscapes.

Cities and Biodiversity Hotspots on Collision Course

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The western hemisphere’s conflict zones / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

Nearly 400 cities around the world are currently on a crash course with irreplaceable ecosystems, according to new research from Richard Weller, ASLA, professor and chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and researchers Claire Hoch and Chieh Huang. Weller shared his findings at the launch for the Atlas for the End of World, which maps these biologically-rich areas and the threats they face.

Agriculture and urbanization, fueled by population increase, pose the greatest threats to these ecosystems. Weller’s team discovered the coming conflict zones by overlaying cities’ 2030 growth projections with maps of threatened species’ habitats.

Some 142 nations preside over biological hotspots. Under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a multilateral treaty that sets guidelines for protecting biological assets, each signatory nation must set forth a strategy for protecting its biologically-rich areas. Using the Atlas, a country’s officials can determine where they should focus their conservation efforts.

Global conservation efforts have been underway for some time. Policies have been enacted to protect certain species and rehabilitate or fence off biologically-rich habitat. One of the Atlas’ maps visualizes all large-scale restoration projects, both planned and underway, globally. These efforts are “historically unprecedented and mark an evolutionary paradigm shift,” Weller said.

But, unfortunately, these conservation efforts are also fragmented and diminished in impact, as most occur outside of the hotspots. Weller drove this point home with an image of what he termed a “global archipelago,” the Earth’s landmass minus its unprotected areas. The result of this subtraction is a system of small, isolated patches of conserved land.

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What’s left of the world’s biodiversity in protected areas / © 2017 Richard J. Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com.

For conservation to have a meaningful impact, it must protect biologically-rich areas, and these areas must connect with one another. A new era of large-scale landscape planning is needed.

Complicating the issue, Weller acknowledged, is the fact that many hotspots occur within countries struggling with poverty and corruption. The man who logs illegally for lack of other work won’t abide by policies that favor habitat over his family.

At the launch, Eugenie Birch, professor of urban research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, suggested the protection of hotspots was tied up not just with food production and development, but larger themes of inequality and conflict. Solving conflicts would help to solve the other issues.

Weller emphasized the Atlas’s goals are modest. To solve the complex issues facing these hotspots, planners and landscape architects must get on the ground and work with stakeholders to intelligently guide development. Now, at least, they have maps to point them in the right direction.

Read Weller’s summary of the research.

Book Review: Seeing The Better City

Seeing the Better City / Island Press

In her book The Eye Is a Door, landscape architecture professor Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, contemplates the ubiquity of the digital camera. “Never have so many people owned cameras,” and never have images been disbursed so widely.  “Our world is being recorded,” Spirn writes. “But to what end?”

Author Charles Wolfe proposes an end in his new book Seeing the Better City. And that end, suggests this environmental and land-use lawyer, is the improvement of urban environments. The first job of the book, a how-to guide on maintaining a photographic diary, is to answer the obvious question: what role do photographs play in improving cities?

Every day, Wolfe writes, people living in cities encounter changing skylines and neighborhoods. They often have strong opinions on those changes. Oral arguments are made and editorials are written advising on what changes should be made, and often these arguments lack even the most basic visual aid of a photograph. Perhaps the term “multi-family housing” conjures a specific image in your head. But if assessing whether a multi-family unit belongs in your neighborhood, you’d have an advantage if you could view precedents.

Still, there’s a gulf between taking photos and improving cities. How does one apply what can be gleaned from photographs to the world of decision makers and developers? Wolfe offers several case studies of projects that make use of community photography to inform civic debates.

WALKscope in Denver has users submit photos of sidewalk quality, obstructions, amenities, and maps those observations. California King Tides invites users to submit photos of the sea taken at high tide to spread awareness about sea-level rise. Beyond these novel uses of photos, the simple incorporation of photos into presentations that inform civic decisions would greatly improve the decision-making process, Wolfe argues.

As a guide for becoming a better observer, Seeing the Better City is highly successful. Wolfe provides a structured template for an urban diary, but invites readers to construct their own.

As for actually shooting photos, Wolfe eschews prescribing techniques in favor of offering basic guidelines. He draws upon well-regarded photographers such as Ansel Adams and other visual thinkers. Diarists should know to make a photo, not just take one. Light is critical, as is where one stands. People are more critical still. Visit locations multiple times; light changes, but so do uses, the presence of people and animals, and small details such as litter. Juxtaposing the old and new can be interesting, if a bit derivative. Juxtaposing form, material, and use can yield rich photos.

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Google Street View can be very useful for discussing elements of the urban environment, Charles Wolfe suggests. / Google Street View

Wolfe wants us to ask ourselves: what is being evaluated through our lens? Wolfe provides 10 parameters for seeing the city. The relation of building to street, standards for roads and signage, and the role of nature are just a few.

Wolfe also suggests activities for inaugurating a diary, such as visiting your five favorite neighborhoods and recording the sights and sounds you encounter, filming your next bike ride, or writing a couple paragraphs about your morning commute.

Many people effectively keep an urban diary without realizing it. The next step is to organize one’s thoughts and photos, reflect on them, and build off them.

Scattered through Seeing the Better City are Wolfe’s anecdotes on his own diary keeping. His observations often demonstrate a deep knowledge of urban policy and land-use issues. Your observations may not, at least initially. But at the very least, urban diaries expand the diarist’s understanding of their city, and that’s enough to start the process of improvement.