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.

Toward a Unified Theory of Landscape Architecture

Island Press
Landscape Architecture Theory / Island Press

Our ecological practices tend to lag behind our ecological understanding. We know, for instance, the unmitigated release of greenhouse gasses destabilizes the climate, yet we’re slow to act on this knowledge. This can be frustrating. But often it benefits a cause to stop and reflect on what is known. This can help bring our knowledge and actions into alignment. Landscape Architecture Theory: An Ecological Approach by Texas A&M University emeritus professor Michael Murphy, ASLA, does exactly this, codifying what landscape architecture knows, so that thoughts and actions may one day be on the same page.

So what does landscape architecture know? More than you might realize. Landscape Architecture Theory is intended as a sort of textbook, so Murphy does his best to cover a lot of ground in relatively few pages. The reader is first introduced to terms like landscape, architecture, and design, as well as the importance of the cultural vantage point from which we view landscape. (Landscape is a tract of land, yes, but also a commodity). The rest of the book is divided into two parts covering substantive and procedural theory. The former “describes the knowledge used to frame and inform design interventions.” The latter gets at how that knowledge is applied.

The result of this approach is an instructional, highly-narrative book that strikes on the fundamentals while stepping lightly through complex subjects. Within a matter of pages, the reader is acquainted with the human propensity for resource extraction inefficiency, the prospect-refuge theory, and a systems approach to landscape. And, surprisingly, the progression feels quite natural.

This distillation of a huge number of important ideas into a quick and coherent format is the blueprint for a go-to book. Landscape Architecture Theory is eminently useful and widely applicable. It’s difficult to recall another book that serves as a primer on the behavioral dimensions of space, traffic circulation, and hydrologic dynamics, among other subjects. There is not a single landscape architecture student who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book cover to cover, and general readers will appreciate its simple and direct treatment of even widely understood subjects.

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The author refers to the Via Appia, in Rome, as an example of the human-dominated landscape. / Wikimedia Commons

Murphy outlines the knowledge that can help us reach goals. Here, he gets abstract, proposing landscape architecture’s purpose is “to change, with each new design, our concepts about how to learn from and reform the ordinary landscapes that shape and inspire our daily lives.” Experimental and innovative design, underpinned by theory, is what moves landscape architecture forward. But while designs may take on extravagant forms, the purpose of landscape architecture remains humble: to benefit “the streets, parks, neighborhoods, schools, shops, offices, and factories where people work and play each day of their lives.”

“We are still in the early stages of forming a coherent theory of landscape architecture,” Murphy cautions. Despite the impressive body of knowledge contained between its two covers, design excellence won’t be achieved by all those designers who read Landscape Architecture Theory. As Murphy acknowledges, one of the main challenges in achieving design excellence is the body of knowledge informing landscape architecture keeps growing while each design success pushes the bar for excellence higher. Viewed in a certain way, that’s a very exciting prospect.

Clean Water for Everyone Who Lives in a City

Water Infrastructure / Columbia University Press
Water Infrastructure / Columbia University Press

Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems is an important, timely book. Synthesized from discussions leading up to Habitat III, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held in Quito, Ecuador last October, the book explains how to better provide clean water to everyone in the world’s cities by making water systems more equitable and resilient to shocks. A perfunctory foreword by Kate Orff, ASLA, demonstrates how refreshingly unpretentious this book is: lines crammed together, a minor typo halfway through, as if to say, who cares about formatting? Get the ideas out there.

With that, Water Infrastructure, written by Columbia University professors S. Bry Sarte and Morana Stipisic, hits the ground running. What threatens the sources of clean water in cities? The authors offer a highly-visual drive-by tour of the risks: water pollution, sea level rise, terrestrial flooding, drought, and failing infrastructure. The tremendous speed of urbanization increases the risks and leaves us in need of better solutions.

Water Infrastructure doesn’t offer sure-fire solutions, but does provide exciting real-world innovations. These innovations aren’t just technological, but fall into the realms of ecology, finance, and equity. All share a similar DNA: they’re decentralized, adaptable, and rational.

The book diagrams which innovations can be applied to specific risks. Confronted with aging infrastructure? Integrated micro-infrastructure centers (IMICs) could help. These are modular water systems that can stand alone or complement aging infrastructure. They can be tailored to local conditions and mitigate damage in case of a centralized system’s failure. IMICs are an ideal response to aging infrastructure, but one can see how they could help reduce water pollution by reducing the overall load on a system.

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Emory University’s IMIC reduces the load on public water infrastrucuture / Water Infrastructure

Landscape architects will be familiar with the ecological innovations Water Infrastructure touts. “The integration of high performance ecology in an urban context” (the unartful name of one innovation) covers both hard and soft coastal buffers, floodable parks and public spaces, and methods for reducing the urban heat island effect. It’s a concern, though, that these items are considered innovations, with the edginess that label connotes, and not standard practice. But one should consider that 20 years ago, at the time of the Habitat II conference, these ideas were fringe at best. Resilient and sustainable landscape design has come a long way.

What constitutes a financial innovation? New ways of sourcing money, and new sources of said money. This section is a bit light. And some of the innovations’ intent could be compromised through privatization. The authors make two useful suggestions: encourage community-based implementation of water infrastructure, akin to Grameen Bank’s model, and use public health benefits to drive funding for these systems.

Innovations in equity, leadership, and governance pick up where these community-centric ideas leave off. The authors’ key policy suggestions here include designing legal and financial systems for community ownership of water infrastructure. The authors write that the “personality of a community can be expressed by the choice of infrastructure and its implementation.” More than that, communities would hold a vested interest in that infrastructure, which would likely lead to greater appreciation and upkeep.

A noteworthy recommendation is leveraging infrastructure’s “cool factor” to create more of it. This is an astonishing comment on the state of things, that plumbing can be art. Any yet it’s increasingly the case, with examples such as Google’s data Center in Douglas County, Georgia, and Ned Kahn’s Cloud Portal in San Francisco.

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Google’s data center in Georgia uses recycled water for cooling operations. / Georgia Globe Design News

Leveraging coolness in a project isn’t always possible. And this recommendation, while alluring, shouldn’t overshadow the book’s other solid and potentially transforming ideas. But its inclusion shows that the authors and participants of Habitat III have considered all aspects of water infrastructure and are excited to share their findings.

Book Review: Nature and Cities

Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
Nature and Cities / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

It’s been 20 years since the publication of Ecological Design and Planning, the collection of essays that established ecological design as the defining innovation of 20th century landscape architecture. Not only has this mode of design informed all thinking about landscape since Ian McHarg first championed it, but designs eschewing this approach have risked irrelevance.

The ensuing two decades since Ecological Design and Planning’s publication have seen two major global changes. First, climate change has emerged as a force that will shape our future. Second, cities have grown to such an extent that their populations account for half of the Earth’s total. The world has not stood still, but, as Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative of Urban Planning demonstrates, neither has landscape architecture.

Nature and Cities, edited by Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell, was intended to be Ecological Design and Planning’s successor, Steiner said. It follows a similar formula: A collection of essays from both well-established and up-and-coming landscape architects with big ideas and projects that showcase them.

Steiner believes Nature and Cities can entice readers outside the fields of landscape and planning, despite its niche topic. The book is handsome and visually rich, and the essays are warmer than they are academic. They vary in subject matter. Richard Weller, ASLA, examines urban forms and formation; Kate Orff, ASLA, and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, explore aqueous landscape design. Several of the most thought-provoking essays make valiant attempts at applying to design our growing understanding of systems, resilience, and the myth of ecological equilibrium.

If these issues don’t interest you, you can use the book to check in on the state of the “landscape architecture: science or art” debate. Nature and Cities offers several worthy contributions to it. Of course, it’s not a question of either or, but as James Corner, ASLA, writes in his essay, there’s a tendency to allow science to govern our designs to the exclusion of the subjective and aesthetic. In our current design atmosphere, improvisation and beauty strain under the yoke of performance metrics. Corner argues that more honest applications of biophilic design would incorporate the errant, much as real ecosystems do, as a means of enrichment.

The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city's fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
The Mill River Park and Greenway, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. An example of the successful introduction of nature into a city’s fabric / Nature and Cities, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Let’s not forget metrics are good for business, Laurie Olin, FASLA, points out in his essay. And if you can put an exclamation point on those metrics with a beautiful design, all the better. His firm accomplished this with a designed marsh on Yale’s campus. Students enjoyed it so much they added fish, leading to a richer ecosystem and indirectly saving the purchase of an additional 1.8 million liters of water per year. Social buy-in can occur when sustainable design is made evident.

“The more I understand the dynamics associated with global climate change and urbanization, the more I want to make sense of it all with other human beings,” writes Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, in her essay. It’s for this reason, Hill argues, that designers should create aesthetic experiences that address this rapid and destabilizing change. Rising sea levels and water scarcity can be frightening, but new aesthetic experiences can help us better understand those threats.

Part of Nature and Cities’ purpose, Steiner said, is to showcase the contributions that landscape architects have made to our cities and environment. “When Susannah Drake, ASLA, and her colleagues want to clean up the Gowanus Canal, that’s heroic,” Steiner said, referring to her essay. “And that they’ve made as much progress as they have is quite remarkable.”

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Gowanus Canal Sponge Park / DLANDstudio

Sizable ambition certainly shines through the successes touted in the book, but reading about them, one wonders if these efforts are adequate in scope to the environmental challenges we face. Adequate or not, isn’t it great that landscape architecture has something to say about it all?

Read the book.

Symbols and Systems: The Work of Barbara Grygutis

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Part of Barbara Grygutis’ acclaimed sculpture, Dawn’s Silver Lining. / Oro Editions

When reductionist artwork, like a Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian painting, succeeds, it succeeds in part because of the role it affords us, the viewer. Faced with a vacuum of meaning, we impart our own identities on the work, gratifying ourselves in highly-personal ways. Artist Barbara Grygutis, whose sculptures are featured in the new book, Public Art / Public Space: The Sculptural Environments of Barbara Grygutis, practices a different reductionism. It’s not us, but the sculpture’s setting that completes the composition.

The book’s subtitle tells us a bit about how Grygutis sees herself, not just as a composer of materials, but a composer of environments. Many of her sculptures cast intricately woven shadows, filter and disperse light, or consolidate it into beacons. The resultant spaces are elevated by the sculptural work and reconstituted environmental qualities. Bronx River View is one such example. This collection of sculptures transform the walls of an above-ground subway station into windows and seating. The view works both ways, and the light cast inward onto the train platform illuminate the sculptures and the passage of time.

Bronx River View / Barbara Grygutis
Bronx River View / Barbara Grygutis

“If you look back at civilizations, we learn about them through their art,” Grygutis says in an interview at the outset of her book. That’s an edifying thought if we consider Dawn’s Silver Lining, a sculpture that epitomizes Grygutis’ most successful work (see image at top). Set in Salina, Kansas, the surrounding rural landscape is flattened into a silhouette of trees and vegetation and pressed onto perforated aluminum: the reduction process. The silhouettes are then re-extruded by the light, the quality of which is constantly changing.

It’s not always enough to simply reduce. There must be a re-introduction of substance into the artwork. Without this — or with too uncritical a reduction — the piece can suffer from a poverty of meaning. Grygutis’ Drop in Prewitt Park is a 35-foot steel and glass sculpture of a water drop. Set centrally to rippling landforms, the sculpture is intended to read as the moment of congruence between water and earth. Instead, because of the drop’s very recognizable and very flat form, it reads as a corporate logo, a symbol rather than a system.

Drop in Prewitt Park / Barbara Grygutis
Drop in Prewitt Park / Barbara Grygutis

This logo-ization of complex system holds back a few of Grygutis’ sculptures that seem to have powerful ideas behind them. Weather, an oblique steel and glass structure located in North Richland Hills, Texas, is meant to evoke the meteorological systems that our landscape is subject to. But the pattern emblazoned in the glass says less about our weather systems than a barometer. Grygutis’ sculpture Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs, is quite literally a giant symbol, π, comprised of several other symbols borrowed from keyboards and calculators. There’s literalness in this and other Grygutis sculptures may put an expiration date on them.

Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs / Barbara Grygutis
Signs and Symbols, Symbols and Signs / Barbara Grygutis

Other projects, like Flaming Arroyo in Las Vegas and Frequencies, a project slated for completion in 2017 in Palo Alto, feel timeless. The latter, which is comprised of five perforated aluminum sculptures and set on a tech campus, indexes electromagnetic frequencies that are ordinarily invisible to us.

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Visitors gather under the sculpture Flaming Arroyo / Oro Editions
Frequencies / Barbara Grygutis
Frequencies / Barbara Grygutis

This is Grygutis at her most impactful, manifesting the unseen or ignored forces of our environment with sculptural interventions that beg people to slow down and take notice.

Sorting Through Contemporary Landscape Architecture

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Thinking the Contemporary Landscape / Princeton Architectural Press

Thinking the Contemporary Landscape, a new collection of essays edited by EHTZ professors Chistophe Girot and Dora Imhof takes on the considerable task of creating a unified understanding of landscape. The essays’ takeaways don’t quite paint as cohesive a picture as the editors suggest. But if the rational and the poetic in landscape are to be reconciled, as the editors insist they must be, this scattershot approach seems as good as any.

Several of the essays deal with the critical issue of place, and how design might enhance rather than obscure it. Girot, in his essay, points to the trend of homogenized ecological design as a missed opportunity to enter a dialogue with the local context. An increased reliance on 2D mapping techniques is to blame for this, Girot argues. An alternative? 3D, of course. Girot is an effective pitchman for the point cloud and the specificity it allows designers to access. Still, it seems too convenient to blame out-of-the-box designs on one set of tools or methods. Girot himself describes these ecological designs as a trend. And as trends are by nature fleeting, perhaps the fear of homogenization has outgrown its actual threat.

In her essay, Allesandre Ponte at the University of Montreal suggests the mapping craze Girot refers to might be a sign of insecurity on the part of designers who find themselves groping around a dark and ever-expanding room of ecology, territory, and culture. The multitude of ways designers can approach sites could come as a relief to some but also induce further “paralysis by analysis” in others.

A meditation by Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, on model-making weaves together interesting personal anecdotes to make a valid criticism of 3D technologies. Rhino and Grasshopper are a necessity but don’t confer good landscape sense. One trusts Gustafson writes from experience when she shares that a designer cannot explore a landscape with just a keyboard and mouse. “Where are you?” Gustafson prods. “What are you truly experiencing? This is the only thing, for me, that really matters.”

It’s possible to get the impression from some contemporary landscape architects that the greatest transgression a designer can make is neglecting aesthetics in the pursuit of ecological function. Reading of people drowning in the streets of Beijing due to urban flooding, one can forgive Kongjian Yu, FASLA, this offense in his deployment of urban sponges. “Healing the ecological system at the national scale needs simple, replicable, and inexpensive solutions, not self-indulgent ornamental design or artistic form,” writes Yu. Of course, Turenscape’s Qunli Stormwater Park is staggering in its messy functionality. Yu shares its origins as well as the genesis of Turenscape in one of the book’s more personable essays. It’s organized as a guide, with steps such as “Do not Try to Influence the Experts,” and “Make a Proposal to the Prime Minister.”

The book’s most successful essays tell stories. Yu’s falls into this category, as does Susann Ahn and Regine Keller’s delightful essay on nature and imitation. Conceiving of nature as a construct can be extremely liberating. But what happens when that conception runs up against cultural expectation? Designers buckle and imitative natures get built. “The question remains whether, and when, the imitation will render the original meaningless.”

Collaboration Is King

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A rendering of the proposed Hudson Yards gardens by Nelson Byrd Woltz, with Thomas Heatherwick’s sculptural tower / Hudson Yards

If one were to pen a history of landscape architecture, who would emerge as the central hero? Or would it be a person at all? Thomas Woltz, FASLA, principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz, proposed collaboration as landscape’s protagonist in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. Collaboration, according to Woltz, “is the only way to realize incredibly complex and layered projects.”

“We live in a society that wants chest-beating heroes,” Woltz said. But the practice of landscape architecture offers little room for excessive pride.

“Your project is only as good as the next tsunami, hurricane, or flood. Landscape straddles horticulture, civil engineering, culture, storm water management, and all these systems have to work together. It is a very humbling profession.”

For that reason, Nelson Byrd Woltz actively engages with experts from a number of fields – conservation biology, soil science, ornithology, cultural history, and archaeology, to name a few – as a means “to tell the story of the land.”

Richard Weller, ASLA and chair of the School of Design’s landscape architecture department, noted that the resulting design work is “intrinsically of its place, evidently beautiful, and poetic without lapsing into spectacle.” It marries ecological restoration with highly-composed and relevant designs. In other words, it has integrity.

Woltz prefers the word authenticity. He described authenticity not as a byproduct of a design, but rather the result of an intentional process on the part of the designer.

“We research events, traces, and artifacts of the specific place, then find ways through the design process to reveal and celebrate those narratives.” It just so happens that the history of a site serves as an inventory of rich design ideas.

Asked for a recent example of this pursuit of authenticity, Woltz offered his firm’s work on the daylighting of Cockrill Spring in Nashville’s Centennial Park.

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The excavated Cockrill Spring / Nathan Hubbard

“In early traveler’s letters there was repeated mention of returning to Nashville along the Natchez Trace and knowing you were home when you ‘drank the cold waters of Cockrill Spring’.” So Woltz and his team worked with archaeologists to locate and excavate the spring. They then designed a contemporary fountain that celebrates the water and tells the story of an important but relatively unknown early settler, Anne Cockrill. The spring now supplies much of the park’s irrigation.

Isn’t examining early maps and historic artifacts the natural thing to do when beginning a project? “In my opinion, it’s the responsible thing to do,” Woltz said. “We owe it to every site to look carefully at what was there before we showed up.”

One would think this method is perhaps less applicable on a site as developed as Manhattan. But Woltz received a laugh from the crowd when, presenting his firm’s recent work on the eastern Hudson Yards, he shared that his firm’s research began with the examination of maps of Manhattan island from 1609. This research clued them into the existence of several streams underneath the train yards. During early talks with the project’s civil engineer, Woltz asked, “How does all of the water underneath the site get out to the Hudson River?” “How,” the civil engineer responded, “did you know there’s water down there?”

Collaboration was an integral part of the Hudson Yards project from the beginning, Woltz said, as the project deals with enormous complexities in sewage, transportation, irrigation, and engineering systems. Initially, there was no one entity coordinating those elements. But Woltz emphasized that landscape architects can inhabit this coordination role, as his firm has done.

In concluding the survey of his firm’s work, Woltz touched on humility once again. “I’m showing you the successes,” Woltz said. “I would love to give a lecture on all the failed things we’ve tried.”

The Landscape of Tyranny

LA+ journal
LA+ journal

“The social and spatial manifestations of power are directly relevant to the design and use of public space,” explained Tatum Hands, editor-in-chief of LA+, the University of Pennsylvania school of design’s interdisciplinary landscape architecture journal. Tyranny, the third issue of LA+, delves into the complex relationship between abuses of power and public spaces.

The issue devotes much of much of its first half to the split identity of spaces of tyranny. For example, public squares can benefit peace protestors and goose steppers, revolutions and counter-revolutions alike. Steve Basson, associate professor of architectural history and theory at Curtin University, exhumes the more disturbing historical uses of public squares in the opening essay, citing examples from Robespierre’s beheadings to Soviet oppression and Nazi torchlight parades.

Perhaps more sinister than tyranny facilitated by physical threat is tyranny facilitated by camera lenses. Pontifical Catholic University professor of urban management Rodrigo José Firmino explores the effect of the ubiquitous security camera and “see something, say something” posters on public spaces in his essay. In the security camera’s eye, movement arouses suspicion, José Firmino writes, and “must be controlled.” Military dominance has come to depend on these eyes on the ground, in the sky, and in your inbox. Buried in José Firmino’s essay is a question that perhaps deserves its own LA+ issue: Are landscape architects enabling or challenging this militarization of the globe?

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“Operation Hello Eden” by Fionn Byrne / LA+

In another essay, University of Pennsylvania lecturer Nicholas Pevzner documents landscape-based efforts at reconciliation in a country just 22 years removed from genocide. In that time, the Rwandan national government has instituted a tree planting week and monthly civic holiday in which all able-bodied persons contribute to civic improvements, such as wetland restoration and erosion control. The effect of these efforts has been to help develop a national identity that is “neither Tutsi nor Hutu, but simply Rwandan.” This essay raises other questions: What is the role of landscape in the aftermath of tyranny?

Rwanda / LA+
Collage by Hannah Davis, with component images “Photographs of Genocide Victims at the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, Rwanda” by Adam Jones, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license via Wikipedia Commons, and “Umuvumu Tree” by Nicholas Pevzner / LA+

If landscape helps form national identity, then displacement abets its erosion. Nowhere would one expect to find this more than in refugee settlements, where residents are consigned to unfamiliar, informal living conditions. But what shines through in shelter and reconstruction professional Jim Kennedy’s essay is the resilience of the displaced. Kennedy offers the example of Dorniz Camp in Northern Iraq. The camp has sadly tripled in size from its initial population of 15,000 in 2013, but has also seen its residents replace tents with concrete and mortar, develop their plots of land, and install commercial structure. The work of residents has had unforeseen consequences, however, as economic stratification has emerged; concrete barriers installed by the “wealthy” divert water onto poorer plots. Political tyranny begets informal settlements begets economic tyranny.

Some of the issue’s essays require especially strong powers of association to discern their relationship to landscape and tyranny, but it’s worth the effort. Only by probing such fields as immigration and securitization are potentially significant relationships to landscape uncovered. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with bucking the tyranny of the journal topic.