Interview with Ignacio Bunster-Ossa: The New Geography of Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, is national practice leader for landscape architecture at AECOM. He is the author of Reconsidering Ian McHarg and with David Rouse, ASLA, Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach. In his previous work as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), Bunster-Ossa led the development of the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica, California, and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia has made great strides in its efforts to become a more sustainable city. Most recently, the city government announced it will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. The city’s green works sustainability plan, transportation plan, and city-wide vision plan lay out ambitious goals. Over the past decade, what have been Philadelphia’s major contribution to the sustainable city movement? And where does the city need to improve?

What propelled the big leap forward was the consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use green infrastructure to manage water pollution going into the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers. The agreement became the Green City, Clean Waters program, which is managed by the Philadelphia water department.

Philadelphia had a vast network of rivers, streams, and creeks, which in many cases were supplanted by underground sewers. These sewers erased the city’s hydrological foundation. Green City, Clean Waters is not quite undoing this system but introducing a new geography of green infrastructure that is not only shaping how the city ecologically functions but also how it looks. The program has produced fantastic parks and greenways. That’s a credit to the leadership: Howard Neukrug, director of watersheds and then commissioner of the water department, who instigated a lot of this; and Mami Hara, ASLA, his deputy for years, who is now the water chief in Seattle.

Fairmount Park rain gardens by Studio Bryan Hanes / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Where we still need to improve: We see projects in areas that have the land. Parks and plazas have been retrofitted or designed anew to incorporate green infrastructure. But Philadelphia is an old, pre-industrial city where streets and sidewalks are tight. The challenge is how do you green streets in South, North, and West Philadelphia? There is so little space to implement a green vision.

Green trolley station in West Philadelphia. A concrete wasteland was transformed into a plaza with colorful plantings, porous paving, shaded seating and a café. Designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates. / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

If you talk to engineers, they’ll say, “well, we can only put an underground cistern,” which works from a water quality point of view, but doesn’t provide the other benefits that green infrastructure produces: shade, biodiversity, and the like. This is the problem we need to address in the future.

As you mentioned, Philadelphia’s landmark green infrastructure plan — Green City, Clean Waters — and the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program have led to the creation of more than 850 greened acres. A greened acre absorbs up to one inch of rainfall through trees, rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs. What does the program need to accomplish next?

800 acres is less than 10 percent of the total required by the consent agreement, which is 9,300-plus greened acres. The question is: how do you implement green infrastructure in places where it’s the most difficult to implement?

Typical narrow downtown street in Philadelphia. A parklet helps absorb stormwater / Ignacio-Bunster Ossa

There’s also an issue of cost: if a greened acre costs $100,000 an acre, that is expensive. Another challenge is hiring a quality workforce who can work on green infrastructure in a way that benefits the most number of people.

Connect, the city’s first strategic transportation plan aims to make public transportation systems more integrated, equitable, and accessible. However, state funding for SEPTA, the regional railway system, is expected to fall. How can a sustainable regional transportation plan be forged among the Delaware River Valley community?

The issue is politics. The solution lies in Harrisburg; it doesn’t lie with SEPTA. Many communities in Pennsylvania don’t use or need transit because they are too spread out. These communities hold power in the allocation of funds that both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia need for transit. It’s a classic case of constituencies fighting for resources.

SEPTA has improved a lot over the years. It’s much more pleasant now to ride trains and buses. We’ve added many miles of bike lanes. And in a warehouse somewhere, there are thousands of electronic scooters ready to be rolled out. There is a new dynamic for moving around in the city.

Philadelphia bike lane / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

One of my biggest hopes is the city will dedicate streets or a whole corridor to low speeds, like 15- 20 miles an hour. If you hit a pedestrian at those speeds, they have an 80 percent chance of being unscathed; maybe a bruise, but that’s it. The city could do that along major corridors. Dedicated street are better than just bike lanes — they result in greater usage of sustainable transportation options.

Through its Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program, the city will be investing $500 million to make fair and equitable improvements in community parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, libraries across the city. What has the program accomplished so far? Are there fears new amenities could exacerbate gentrification?

The program is new so it hasn’t produced the scale of improvements that can lift up the whole city. The rebuild program has identified specific areas based on income, quality of the resource, need for the resource, and level of improvement. They’re spending the money in a prioritized way. And the $500 million is not all there. It’s being accumulated from a tax on soda, as well as from contributions from foundations. This is a long-term program that can produce results.

The issue of gentrification is very, very serious in Philadelphia. From a personal experience living in West Philadelphia, now known as University City District, I’ve been the recipient of the positive side of gentrification. But because of that, I’m acutely aware of the impacts.

I don’t think it necessarily follows that improvements will produce gentrification, in part because Philadelphia is one of the poorest cities. For large cities, the median income is one of the lowest, if not the lowest. The city is also predominately African-American, so the infusion, if you will, of white money that can produce gentrification won’t affect communities most in need of basic improvements. Perhaps long-term that could be the case. But the program isn’t prioritizing in any way, shape, or form projects that can induce re-development in a gentrifying way.

A recent study by Bloomberg found the City of Brotherly Love is sadly the third most unequal city in the U.S. behind Miami and Atlanta. Furthermore, the city jumped 17 spots in the past year, the sharpest negative move among the top ten most unequal cities. How can Philly better address the large income gap between those who live in or near Center City and those in low-income neighborhoods?

An associated consequence of the income gap is the gap in access to public resources. A research study by University City District called Just Spaces surveyed under-represented communities in the district. They want to find out: why don’t low-income people use bike lanes? Why don’t they use parks or public spaces? There are racial and economic reasons.

The report may point the way towards how you can create equity– not in terms of income, but at least in terms of access to affordable mobility and parks and recreation, which can elevate quality of life for everyone.

Philadelphia is also a hot spot for air pollution, earning an “F” grade from the American Lung Association and ranking just behind Memphis and Richmond for the country’s worst air. One in ten Philadelphians have asthma. Furthermore, asthma rates are spread unevenly, largely tracking with areas that are abnormally hot with fewer trees. This is because extreme heat combined with pollution forms dangerous levels of ozone that lead to asthmatic emergencies. How can this city address the inequity of the urban heat and air pollution issue?

Green infrastructure is a real solution — and it was embedded in the precursor to Green City, Green Waters, which was the Green Plan Philadelphia, a landmark report that Mami Hara also guided. The problem in Philadelphia is the tight streets where you can hardly fit a tree, given all the utilities. God forbid you remove a parking space. There’s a tremendous need for vegetation, particularly in South Philadelphia, where it’s very hard to find a tree in any given block.

The other component is obviously the roof landscape. In much of the city, roofscapes exceed streets in area. I would start programs that can produce green roofs, certainly blue roofs, but also change the material on the roof, so they are more reflective. You would see temperatures go down. I would do everything possible to improve the shade cover on streets as well.

Comcast Tower green roof by OLIN / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Philadelphia did a program called Green Streets that I was part of. They have a design manual for green streets, which explains how to incorporate green infrastructure every time you fix a street. Over time, the city can make a dent in the air pollution problem.

After many years as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), where you designed projects such as the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, you moved to AECOM, where you’re now national practice leader for landscape architecture. In your new position, how do you hope to move Philly in a more sustainable, equitable direction?

We have folks in Philadelphia working for the water department on the green infrastructure program. We collaborate on where the rubber hits the road: How do you take a very small area and make it green? If there’s one lesson about the Green City, Clean Waters program is we’re almost dealing at the micro-landscape scale. That’s the level at which improvements are made over time.

The other work is focused on building parks near creeks to improve the quality of the water, but also recreational trails, such as in Pennypack and Tacony Creeks, and the Schuylkill River boardwalk, which is part of one the nation’s top urban trails.

Schuylkill River boardwalk / AECOM

The city has a very robust community engagement process. Philadelphia has a neighborhood-centric social structure. It’s great to work with people at that scale to make change.

And what have you learned from your 20-plus years’ experience in Philly that you want to bring to other cities and the national level?

It’s all about the scale of the city. Compare downtown Philadelphia to downtowns in other places, compare the widths of streets. I’ve measured this: it takes me 12 steps to cross most Center City streets. That’s 2-3 seconds. It’s a highly pedestrian-friendly environment because it’s so easy to cross a street.

When I go to other places and they tell me, “oh, you need a radius of 30 feet, because you need a truck to move around the city,” I say, “No you don’t.” I can show examples of big fire trucks moving around the city in this tight environment.

If I had to say anything about Philadelphia that would lead to a better future — it’s we need to take vehicles out of Center City and dense urban areas. Uber and autonomous vehicles (AVs) create on-call circulation that can travel at very low speeds. You no longer need parking. This evolution is inevitable in American cities. Philadelphia is ready-made to lead the way.

Call for Nominations for ASLA 2019 Honors

ASLA 2018 Honors awards ceremony, Philadelphia / EPNAC

Nominations for the 2019 ASLA Honors are now open. These prestigious awards recognize individuals and organizations for their lifetime achievements and notable contributions to the profession of landscape architecture.

Honors nomination categories include:

Nominations are also open for ASLA Honorary Membership. Honorary Membership recognizes persons other than landscape architects whose achievements of national or international significance or influence have provided notable service to the profession of landscape architecture.

The deadline for all nominations is February 1, 2019.

Any ASLA professional member or ASLA chapter may submit nominations for ASLA honors. For more details on the nomination criteria by category, view the links above.

Questions about the nomination process for ASLA honors and honorary membership may be directed to honorsawards@asla.org or by calling 202-216-2331.

Medellín Is Healing Itself with Social Urbanism

Medellín, Colombia / Maria Bellalta

The Colombian civil war that began in the 1960s killed some 220,000 people and displaced another 5 million, creating one of the largest groups of internally-displaced people in history.

In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia, Maria Bellalta, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), said the civil war was the terrible legacy of Spanish colonialism, which created a deeply unequal economic and social system that exploited both the environment and native peoples.

Colombians displaced from their farms in the countryside and severed from the natural environment by “greed and violence” ended up in cities like Medellín. There, the chaos of government and guerilla warfare, endemic poverty and great inequality, and the legacy of environmental destruction contributed to the rise of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, who ruled from the neighborhoods at the outer lip of the valley that gives form to the city.

All the violence and corruption scarred not only the city but also the landscape, said Bellalta, who has been bringing her students to Medellín to see and learn for the past few years. But a decade after the death of Escobar in 1993, Medellin invented a new approach, which then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo called “social urbanism.” The goal was to use urban design — and importantly, landscape architecture — to reduce inequality and heal the environmental damage.

Fajardo “invited disregarded communities to participate in planning efforts,” which resulted in major investments in new subways, aerial tramways, bicycle infrastructure, libraries, and beautiful parks — with the majority of the new amenities created in underserved communities. Efforts to “change the social dynamic” yielded new networks of aerial trams and lengthy escalators built into steep hills. These inventive, low-cost transportation systems created new connections to the city center for the once-isolated, difficult-to-reach communities with high numbers of low-income residents. World-class libraries and green spaces were purposefully built in the places that had no parks.

Aerial trams in Medellín / The Gondola Project
España Library-Park in Santo Domingo Savio in Medellín / Royal Institute of British Architects
Botanical garden of Medellín / Flickr

The city was also smart to re-use existing infrastructure. Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAS), which Bellalta said are equivalent to our YMCAs, were “strategically created by re-purposing existing water tanks that form part of the city’s hydraulic system.”

Bellalta noted an important public work that has also helped Medellin and Colombia heal: the Museum of Memory, a “poignant tribute to those who died or disappeared during the civil revolution.” The museum is found alongside a linear park that follows the Santa Elena stream. The park is designed to “offer relief through a magical re-encounter with nature and the cleansing attributes of water.”

Museum of Memory, stream found to the left of the museum / Juan David Botero

Lina Escobar, director of the landscape architecture program at the Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana in Medellín, further explained how the city is cleansing itself with water and nature.

Since its founding, the city has been intertwined with the Aburrá river — or Medellín river — and the Santa Elena creek, its primary tributary. “Medellín’s geography is determined by the river and tributaries that crosses the valley,” which has shaped the city’s orientation and patterns of development. In the 1940s, a 30-kilometer stretch of the Medellín river was put in a concrete channel to reduce flooding. As the population started to swell in the 1950s, the city developed around the river.

Medellín River / School of Landscape Architecture, Boston Architectural College
Medellín River / Maria Bellalta

Then in 2014, Medellín city government launched an international design competition to envision a new Medellín River Park (Parques del Rio). The competition asked firms to create a master plan for the entire length of the river as it cuts through the city and then focus in on the central zone — the 9-kilometer stretch through the core of the city.

Medellín-based firm Latitude beat out the competition with their concept for a “botanical park that recovers connections to water systems through a revitalized biotic metropolitan corridor.” The park developers will take parts of the concrete channel out, bury an adjacent highway, and create a new, lush green spine, with tendrils spreading throughout the valley.

Medellín River Park / Latitude
Medellín River Park / Latitude

Escobar said the new park, which is now in development, is not only a “new ecological structure for the region, but also re-frames people’s relationships with each other and nature after years of conflict.”

Medellín River Park / Latitude

Daniela Coray, who was a graduate student of Bellalta’s at BAC, said there are so many other opportunities to heal the rupture between city and nature. Her master’s thesis project looked at ways to restore the polluted Santa Elena stream, particularly near the emotionally-resonant Museum of Memory. “The stream holds the memory of geographical and social divisions that could begin a process of healing.”

Through an interesting aside that took us out of Medellín, Ken Smith, FASLA, founder of Ken Smith Workshop, related how principles of social urbanism could be applied at the landscape-scale in other cities. He “deliberately engineered” the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan for social interaction through inventive “social seating,” a dog park, and meandering paths that force people to see each other. “The paths curve because it’s impossible to meander in a straight line.”

East River Waterfront Esplanade / Ken Smith Workshop

The important but unspoken message was that the smart design strategies of social urbanism need to be more widely applied around the globe.

Best Books of 2018

Around the World in 80 Trees / Lawrence King Publishing

If you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into over the winter break, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2018, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:

Around the World in 80 Trees
Lawrence King Publishing, 2018

In this delightful book by Jonathan Drori that features magical drawings by Lucille Clerc, the history of different tree species around the world comes alive. For thousands of years, humanity has depended on trees for food, medicine, and companionship.

Design as Democracy / Island Press

Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity
Island Press, 2018

Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive book. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. The editors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.” Read the full review.

GGN Landscapes / Timber Press

GGN Landscapes, 1999-2018
Timber Press, 2018

This monograph provides real insights into the design process of Seattle-based firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN), making it one of the best of this format. Thaïsa Way, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, partnered with GGN to dig deeper into how the firm has used “creativity and problem-solving” to “make and shape memorable places.”

Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City / Terreform

Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City
Terreform, 2018

Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with this book, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.

The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard / Princeton Architectural Press

The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard
Princeton Architectural Press, 2018

Edward Tufte, the world’s best known information designer, said Charles-Joseph Minard’s statistical map of Napolean’s 1812 invasion and then retreat from Russia was the greatest information graphic ever made. In this intruiging new book, author Sandra Rendgen uncovers the man who made the graphic as well as his many data visualization innovations. Read the full review.

Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening / MIT Press

Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening
MIT Press, 2018

Julian Raxworthy, a landscape architect and senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, calls for the “integration of landscape architecture and gardening. Each has something to offer the other: Landscape architecture can design beautiful spaces, and gardening can enhance and deepen the beauty of garden environments over time.”

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore / Milkweed Editions

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Milkweed Editions, 2018

Journalist Elizabeth Rush takes readers on a journey to places where sea level rise is already having an impact — from the Gulf Coast to Miami, New York City to the Bay Area. “For many of the plants, animals, and humans in these places, the options are stark: retreat or perish in place.”

River City, City Rivers / Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

River City, City Rivers
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2018

For those who enjoy a deep dive into history, this book edited by Thaïsa Way, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, offers a rich exploration of how cities and rivers have shaped each over throughout the centuries. The intertwined history is also viewed through the lens of climate change and resilience. River City, City Rivers is the end-product of the excellent 2015 symposium on river cities at Dumbarton Oaks.

Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape As Art and Urbanism / Lars Müller Publishers

Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism
Lars Muller Publishers, 2018

Roberto Burle Marx stands as one of the towering figures of 20th century landscape architecture, yet he left relatively little in the way of writing that describes, defends, or otherwise elucidates his work. A new collection of lectures, edited by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, helps fill that void. Read the full review.

Structures of Coastal Resilience / Island Press

Structures of Coastal Resilience
Island Press, 2018

This excellent book by landscape architects Catherine Seavitt Nordenson and 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. Structures of Coastal Resilience is a significant contribution to the body of research on this topic. Read the full review.

A few other notable books published this year:

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s world-class book store.

Interview with Linda Jewell: How to See More Deeply

Linda Jewell, FASLA

Linda Jewell, FASLA, is the recipient of the 2018 ASLA Medal, the 2008 Jot D. Carpenter Teaching Medal, and the 2007 Bradford Williams Medal. Jewell is professor emerita of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, where she was chair from 2006-2010 and partner in the firm Freeman & Jewell. She was construction editor at Landscape Architecture Magazine in the 80s, and co-author of Women in Landscape Architecture: Essays on History and Practice (McFarland, 2011). She is working on a new book on outdoor event spaces.

Interview was conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia.

How can landscape architecture educators strike a balance between teaching students about the big picture issues — climate change, urbanization, biodiversity loss — and the practical aspects of designing and building a project in the real world?

The curriculum has to strike the balance. Education should be project-based, because that is the education we’re best at and what really works for designers. Some of those projects start small and work up in scale, and then others start large and work down in scale.

I remember a project when I was teaching at North Carolina State 35 years ago. Arthur Sullivan, who had taught at the University of Pennsylvania and was a scientist, ran a wonderful studio where he asked students to analyze a suburban house, an urban house, and a rural house. He asked them to analyze every bit of water and trash — to discover these homes’ impact on the world. What would have to happen for them to achieve zero resource use? So, it was a small focus, but it looked out.

Whenever students are doing something small — like working out their water system — they’ve got to know where every drop of water ends up. They have to have a realistic view rather than just, “Oh, this is what they did in Portland, and so we’re going to do it here.”

The issue is learning to look at the specific situation and then back out and look at the impact of the small on the large. At the same time, you can look at the impact of large-planning decisions on how small projects are built.

How does landscape architecture education incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) principles, which are viewed as so critical in today’s job market? How is education focused on STEM strengthened by design thinking?

It’s fascinating how in the last decade science and technology curricula have been looking to design schools for design thinking. There’s hardly a well-known engineering, computer technology, or environmental science department that isn’t in some way teaching design thinking now.

What they’re after is out of the box thinking. They are trying to help their students not only follow linear systems, which is the tradition in engineering, but to break out and bite the blue apple. I know one faculty member used to say: “Take that risk, try something that has not yet been prescribed.”

Landscape architects are deeply connected to the environmental sciences. We have been working with environmental scientists through the entire course of the profession. It has become more precise because regulatory requirements have become more complicated. There is still a lot of our population that is aware that when you build a project, it will have impact on the local bay or river, the ocean, and air quality. Because of that awareness, we have clients, particularly government agencies, that want to understand the impact of making a particular decision.

For the most part, all of the good, strong, creative design firms in the country rely on specialists — sometimes landscape architects who have also studied some aspect of ecology or someone who started in ecology and maybe studied landscape architecture or environmental planning. Nobody does anything by themselves any more; there are very complex teams.

As educators, part of what we have to do is to help people find their place. We help them understand the breadth of possibilities and the complexities. Everybody — even if they are the most technical, nerdy kind of person doing very specific things — wants to reach outside the box to solve a problem.

We must recognize each site is unique and you have to solve a situation for a particular site. I’m tired of seeing Portland green infrastructure details appearing in projects all over the country. Every time I go to see a student project somewhere everybody’s thrown in the images of Portland. There probably is a better solution someplace else. The ability to craft things to the unique situation is really important.

How does landscape architecture education need to evolve to meet the needs of increasingly diverse student body and a diverse society?

Undergraduate and graduate landscape architects need to recognize that other people, particularly those in other cultures, see the world differently than they do. People have different value systems. Just because you think it’s wonderful to have a coffee shop on the edge of your project doesn’t mean everyone does.

Now, I think most educators think, “Well, then you do community projects.” But there are other ways as well. Classmates can learn from one another.

I taught the large architecture and landscape architecture urban studies courses with 140 students at University of California at Berkeley. These young freshman are trying to figure out what they want to do in the design world. And talk about diversity — it is Berkeley, where white males are in a minority, and there’s everybody — Southeast Asians, lots of Latino students, African-American students.

They learn from one another if you set up a situation where they’re working in teams. I used to do an exercise where one student makes a collage. If they were going to design a park, they would make a collage of the images of their ideal park. Then we would draw names and someone else would design for this other person’s park. Well, if you grew up in the valley of California of Latino background, your images were quite different from the preppy from New England. I did this years ago at NC State. There, I had a guy from West Texas and a woman from Massachusetts. All of her spaces were enclosed in green, and all of his were vast and open. They had trouble making the transition to the other’s spatial value system.

Community projects are one way to do it, but they’re very complicated, and it takes a sophisticated teacher to do them. They’re best done after students have some experience and build up some skills because there’s often the danger of both disappointing students and the community. They can be excellent experiences, but an experience in which students realize not everybody sees the landscape exactly the way they do.

Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, has called you “sublimely practical.” Do you believe the devil is in the details? How do you teach students to care about the details when they are making something?

Materials are design opportunities. They are the opportunities where we can be the most creative.

Many of our design leaders just do an extraordinary job now. But they didn’t 40 years ago. When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania 40 years ago, it was asphalt with wood trim and brick-banded concrete and that was pretty much what we learned. Poured-in-place concrete. We’ve broadened out quite a bit.

The best way to teach and for students to learn to be creative is through observation. I taught a field trip course at Berkeley. All we would do is go to projects where my colleagues in practice in the Bay Area were very generous to show them projects under constructions, talk about the choice of materials, source of the materials, the problems in installing them, how they worked.

The students would also do a post-material construction evaluation — go to projects and make their own observations, take notes, keep a detail notebook. They would go out with some kind of measuring device. I have them use notebooks with grid paper. They would have to draw-to-scale sketch– not hard line, just draw over a grided scale, a detail of a bike rack or curb edge. They would keep that notebook throughout the semester.

What I was trying to do is give them a new pair of eyes. It’s been very rewarding when I have a student who years later says, “Oh, I still do that. I still go out and look, measure, and try to understand.” We can’t possibly teach in school what you need to know about materials and detailing. What we can do is get people excited about them, make them curious, and give them a new pair of eyes.

Student Sketchbooks / Linda Jewell

The other thing I do in the field trip course is go to offsite manufacturing, so students become familiar with how things are fabricated. The digital age has given us so many different ways to produce materials, with all of the laser cutting and digitally-run equipment that are creates in shops and then installed in the field. These trips also armed students with building techniques they then used in my design-build class.

Bike Racks for Wurster. College of Environmental Design, University of California at Berkeley / Linda Jewell
ASLA 2011 Student Collaboration Honor Award. Wurstershire Sauce, University of California at Berkeley / Yes Duffy

What’s the worst construction errors you’ve ever seen? And the worst mistake in the application of materials?

I’d be hard pressed to pick one project. I did a lot of work for speculative developers in the D.C. area who were not prone to spend a lot of money. They had some very basic ways of building: poured-in-place concrete, three-inch pipe rail. You’ve seen some of the work over at Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia. They built in pre-cast concrete.

What we tried to do in the Crystal City Water Park is use the materials as best we could so the developers were comfortable using and maintaining the park.

Crystal City Water Park / Linda Jewell
Crystal City Water Park / Anton Grassl

Some of the biggest mistakes are made when your budget and your ideas about what can be built are misaligned. One of the construction field trips we used to go on visited Ron Herman’s very high-end residential projects. They were wonderful to see, because Ron would work with granite that had been cut so precisely to a quarter of an inch. Students could understand the tolerances that he was able to work with, because he had the money. Then we’d go to a public bid project in Berkeley where they were doing poured-in-place concrete. There, you shouldn’t have the expectation that you were going to have the kind of precision that Ron could have.

You learn and observe, but you’re not going to do that while you’re in school. All you can do is set people up to ask: what kind of craftsmanship can I get in this particular situation? Who are the local craftsman? How can I bring them in?

Maybe landscape architects and architects are not very adventuresome about finding the local craftsmen and getting some real bargains out of them in terms of crafted benches, detailing in the landscape. But others are. Many of our most creative landscape architects — even with modest budgets — do this.

You gotta craft to your situation. That’s where I see the worst mistakes: an expectation that every line, every joint is going to line up. If it’s going to the low bidder in a public project, it’s probably not going to line up.

Should all landscape architecture educators practice and all practitioners teach?

No, but some of them should on both ends. Every landscape architecture faculty should include people that have practiced or are actively practicing. That doesn’t mean bringing in the local practitioner to teach a materials class. We need a number of people on the full-time tenure-track faculty who have a role in running the department and developing the curriculum with experience in practice.

Departments also need people who strictly do research on speculative, creative projects like Alan Berger at MIT, or James Corner, ASLA, at the University of Pennsylvania, when he started out. If you have that range of people, then they begin to start conversations with each other.

It takes work on the part of faculty to integrate practitioners who are not being paid. Many of them are very generous, but they really have a time squeeze. I mentioned the construction field trip course. I couldn’t do that without participation of practitioners. But I had to cultivate that relationship. Full-time faculty have to cultivate relationships with local practitioners.

What was it like to be the first woman to run the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design? Did you feel supported or like you had to overcome sexism?

When I studied architecture, I was the only woman in my class. I did not have a woman colleague until I went to the University of Pennsylvania to study landscape architecture. Not only did I have a women student colleagues, but Carol Franklin, FASLA, was one of my instructors. That was a whole new world.

I have my #MeToo stories, believe me, because I was the only woman. I was pretty accustomed to dealing with those kinds of situations.

My colleagues on the landscape architecture department were wonderful. I was the only woman. Well, Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, was there when I first went, but then she left, and there was just me, and then I hired Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, who became chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia and later dean of their architecture school. I have liked having women around.

It was a little more difficult with some of the architecture faculty and administration who put me in a girl box. The girl box is helper-mate. Good administrator; take care of the problem. I’m not saying that my landscape architecture colleagues were like that. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA; Carl Steinitz; Laurie Olin, FASLA; and Peter Walker, FASLA were all terrific to me. They appreciated that I took care of the administrative crap and tried to do it well, but I never felt that they put me in a box.

The first year I started teaching at Harvard, Carl warned me that I would have nearly 90-year-old Norman Newton teaching in the first semester studio with me, even though he’d been retired for 30 years. Norman was known for dismissing women. He was often criticized that his history book didn’t even cover Beatrix Farrand in any comprehensive way. That just kind made me more determined to reach out and develop a bond with him, which I did through an exhibition of his work on construction details. It was also good for me, because it sent me in a whole new direction of how to teach construction. That was the inspiration for me teaching students to go out, observe, and measure existing details.

There are more high-profile women landscape architects and educators than ever before. How has it changed for women practitioners and educators over the past few decades?

It has been terrific because we support each other. With the commissions I sit on, I have been in the position to advocate for women’s firms to be hired. It was no compromise on my part, because we’re talking about Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) and firms like that. But I’ve found you still have to advocate. The more of us out there, the more we can advocate for each other. There’s now a significant old girls’ network.

There are still obstacles. I know women-owned firms where the heads of the firms, even some of our most talented people, struggle to get the interview for a project. The obstacles are more subtle and much less than they used to be.

I want to give thanks to people like Thaisa Way, FASLA, who has writing about the many women from the 1910s-1903 who were doing significant work and were never talked about. At Landscape Architecture Magazine, from Grady Clay up to the current editor Brad McKee, there has been a real effort to make sure women aren’t shunted to the side. Grady Clay was very good when he put Martha Schwartz’s Bagel Garden on the cover of the magazine. When he hired me as construction editor when I was in my 20s — rather than some of the other people who applied — he was a rebel.

Pulsating Public Art Brings New Life to Dilworth Park

Pulse, a new work by artist Janet Echelman, may be the stickiest public art ever conceived. Sticky is a term used by web developers to explain compelling design elements that bring users back again and again. In the case of Pulse found in Dilworth Park, at the western edge of Philadelphia City Hall, you wait there — and also return later — because you are uncertain when the sculpture made of light and mist will appear and, once it does, each sequence of color and motion is unique. Later, you realize the blasts of atomized water and light actually mark the arrival in real-time of the green line subway pulling into the central transit station just beneath the park.

Pulse / Jeff Fusco

Dilworth Park opened in 2015 after a two-year, $55-million revamp by landscape architects at OLIN and architects at KieranTimberlake, as part of an effort led by the Center City District. The new park — perhaps really more a plaza — was designed to be a flexible event space, with fountains, a small lawn, restaurant, and moveable tables and chairs set within lush gardens. But the park itself was designed from the beginning to incorporate the work of Janet Echelman. As Susan Weiler, FASLA, partner at OLIN explained, “there was a consensus decision to integrate Pulse into the project, which removed the potential of it not being installed later.”

Dilworth Park, Philadelphia / KierenTimberlake

Echelman is known for deeply researching a site where her works will be. This research adds depth and meaning to her enigmatic, enveloping sculptures. Echelman said two elements of Philadelphia history inspired her: water and transportation.

Philadelphia’s industrial and manufacturing success was only made possible by the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers that flank its sides. “So I decided water needed to be used as a material.”

Transportation has also been critical to Philly’s development. “In the 1960s, they tore down the old Penn railroad, but from vintage photographs, you can see trains running on steam.”

Furthermore, just below Dilworth Park is a central transit hub for the subway — a key node in the city’s circulatory system. “I wanted to reveal through a simple gesture above ground what was happening below ground.”

Pulse actually pulsates with mist — mimicking the steam trains of old, but also to express “the pulse of the city.” Echelman didn’t want the pulsations, which only appear when the green line train pulls in below, to be predictable, but “fun and playful.” Indeed, when I visited kids were lined up on the pathways between fountains waiting for the explosions of steam to envelope them and would joyfully scream when they did.

Pulse / Jeff Fusco
Pulse / Sean O’Neill, Arup

The light that infuses the mist is made of three different colors — a predominant color that is tied to the subway line’s color and two undertone colors — that are programmed via computer algorithm to never be exactly alike. Thirteen different pulsations are sequenced that way, too. The result is each combination of pulsation and color is unique.

Pulse / Melvin Epps

“God bless OLIN for protecting the artwork.” By working Pulse into the final construction documents, the landscape architects prevented the artwork from being value engineered later. Pulse was purposefully embedded into the entire park’s complex water and energy systems.

Weiler said the project was a “huge collaboration” between Echelman, OLIN, CMS Collaborative (the fountain designers), and Arup (the lighting designers). In Palm Springs, California, the team evaluated full-scale mock-ups of the art work, tinkering to make sure the system would work in a highly-trafficked area amid Philly’s rugged environment.

There was a multi-year lag in building Pulse because when the park opened, “there wasn’t money for the art,” Weiler said. Philadelphia-based philanthropists and foundations stepped in to make it happen.

Susan Weiler with OLIN enjoys the art / Melvin Epps

The artful illumination of the green line is just the beginning. A similar art work for the orange line will soon cut through the length of the park, and one for the blue line will run perpendicular to the west entrance of Philadelphia City Hall. Also, worth noting: the center court of City Hall will soon be revamped by WRT.

Interview with Hitesh Mehta: The Spiritual Side of Sustainability

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA / HM Design

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, is president of HM Design, which has completed planning, architecture, and landscape architecture projects in more than 60 countries. He is an international expert in sustainable tourism, including wildlife conservancy planning and eco-lodge development. Mehta is also the author of Authentic Ecolodges (Harper Design).

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

In more than 60 countries, you have worked on some of the finest sustainable tourism planning and eco-lodge projects in the world, including the Crosswaters Ecolodge in China, which won two ASLA professional awards. National Geographic has called you a pioneer of sustainable tourism. What are the top three lessons you have learned from your many projects working with local and indigenous communities?

Lesson number one: Never judge people from the way they look. Indigenous people have lived on their land for thousands of years. Through storytelling and personal experiences that have been passed over generations, they have built knowledge and wisdom crucial to every project.

Lesson number two: Empower local people from day one, especially women and children. At home, women make a lot of the decisions, and youth are the future. Bringing them into a project on day one helps ensure a sustainable project. You want to give them ownership. It’s a ground-up approach rather than top-down.

Lesson number three: No matter how much of an international expert you are, no matter how much research you have done, and how much knowledge you have acquired, always go into every project without an ego. Go with good listening skills first. Once you’ve heard local peoples aspirations, needs, etc.; gathered on-site information; walked the site with the locals; and have conducted a metaphysical site analysis, slowly share what you can bring to the table, making sure you let them know what they bring to the table is equally important.

Indigenous communities are in the front lines in the fight against climate change. How do you empower them in their fight to protect endangered ecosystems and their own livelihoods? Are there any projects that serve as models?

Indigenous communities, especially in the less developing world, are greatly affected by climate change. A lot of these communities live in the tropics. Especially in Africa, drought and the lack of drinking water are big issues. This in turn, causes food security problems. In Kenya, where I am still a citizen, the Maasai look at their cattle as their economic lifeline. That’s what keeps them going. If there is drought, there is no grass. There’s nothing to feed the cattle, and it can become a serious issue, because this is their security.

A project that serves as an exemplary model is one in which I led a team of local Kenyan consultants and where we worked together with the clients — the Koiyaki Maasai community — to help create an ecotourism and conservation destination called Naboisho Wildlife Conservancy. Previous to our intervention, the community had subdivided their 50,000-acre land into 50-acre parcels owned by 500 families. But every family had their cattle and goats, which caused the land to be overgrazed. Lack of grass and presence of cattle kept all the wild animals away.

The Maasai decided to consolidate all their land and brought in private lodge operators — eco-tourism companies — as a way to generate income for them. The Maasai all moved to neighboring lands they also owned. The private partners contracted us as protected area ecotourism planners, and, together with the Maasai, tourism and conservation stakeholders, we created an integrated sustainable tourism, biodiversity, and grazing master plan for the conservancy.

Planning with the Koiyaki Maasai community / HM Design

With five small twelve-room tents and lodges, money started flowing directly into every Maasai’s home at the end of each month via their mobile cell-phones. They no longer had to rely solely on cattle for their livelihood. Wild animals started coming back, because cattle mainly grazed in neighboring areas. And the tourists are paying big bucks to have quality guided safari experiences. Creating a wildlife conservancy was a win/win for everyone: the tourists, the private partners, flora and fauna and of course the Maasai and their cattle. During droughts, cattle are only allowed into the conservancy in certain controlled areas. The conservancy fees provide the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood and ensure the conservation of the wildlife in this vital corridor of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.

As populations grow around the world, but also in sub-Saharan Africa, human and wildlife conflicts are becoming more prevalent. How can we protect endangered species while also ensuring people’s livelihoods? Are there models that show the way?

There are many models, particularly in Africa, and it has become mainstream to go in this direction. A project that I worked on many years ago that is still a good case study is the Virunga Massif Trans-Boundary protected area. Virunga Massif straddles and borders of three East and Central African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Each country has a national park along their respective borders. This region protects the only remaining populations in the world of mountain gorillas. The parks are bordered by dense populations of local peoples, and there are human-wildlife conflicts with gorillas going out into the fields. We prepared an integrated sustainable tourism and biodiversity master plan for the whole region. When we began the master plan in 2005, there were only 600 mountain gorillas, and the latest count is 1,004!

Virunga Massif integrated master plan / HM Design

Apart from conserving important habitat, the master plan also proposed several eco-lodges at the edge of the parks. All of them have now been built and are financially successful. The demand to see the mountain gorillas is so high that eco-tourists are paying $1,500 for one hour to be with these great apes. There’s a one-year waiting list!

What’s great is that some money is channeled straight to local communities, which now see the importance of maintaining the gorillas’ habitat. The communities no longer take firewood from the forest because they earn a living from gorilla tourism and the eco-lodges bring in a lot of money from guests, with part of the profits used to benefit these communities.

A heart-warming part of the master plan just got realized five months ago on the Uganda side of the Virunga Massif in Mgahinga National Park. The Batwa, indigenous peoples, who used to live in the forest but had been chased out when the National Park was created in 1991, have now been re-located to a new village at the edge of the park and act as guides, taking visitors into the forest in the National Park, and showing them about their lives and connections with the forest. An eco-lodge where I had provided site planning consultancy, funded the Batwa village and Visitor Center, so the Batwa community could share their culture and live closer to the forest instead of the nearby urban town of Kisoro.

You have said we cannot have true sustainability without incorporating the spiritual. This belief is central to your metaphysical or sixth-sense approach to planning and designing projects, which you have also trained other planners and designers to apply. What is the core idea you want people to understand?

For the longest time, pragmatic environmentalists have been talking about the triple bottom line of sustainability — environmental, economic, and social. But in my work, I have found that without respecting the fourth element — spiritual — one cannot have sustainability. What do I mean by spiritual? Spirituality is the energy embodied in any place. The metaphysics of a place. The intangible aspects that cannot be measured by modern science. We need to respect this embodied energy to create a sense of place. The sacred space.

Feng Shui is a well-used example of the spiritual aspects of sustainability — the yin and the yang, the chi, and how to use that energy to create an amazing experience in which you have a spiritual connection with the site. Similarly, for over 8,000 years, the Indians have been applying principles of design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry called Vastu Shastra, which is even older than Feng Shui. Vastu Shastra is the ancient Indian science of harmony and prosperous living by eliminating negative energies and enhancing positive energies.

Native Americans also have a strong spiritual connection with their lands. When they take you on a walk of their country, they will point at a hill and say “this is our sacred hill” and when you look around, there are probably several others that look the same. So why is that hill sacred and not the others? It’s because there is a sacred energy embodied in that particular hill. My job as a landscape architect is to work with indigenous communities, so they can identify all those areas sacred to them. And then protect them.

If the clients do not believe in these traditional ways of looking at the land, I propose the use of each one of our six senses to immerse into the site to understand the energy. Connect deeply to the land through the ears, mouth, eyes, nose, fingers, but most importantly through the sixth sense: when you become a part of the site and feel its energy. That is the crucial element of trying to create a project that’s sustainable, but also which creates a beautiful sense of place.

Metaphysical analysis of a place through touch / HM Design
Metaphysical analysis of a place through sound / HM Design

As part of your work of Landscape Architects Without Borders, you have provided pro-bono planning and design services to aboriginal tribes in Australia and other communities. How do you enable them to incorporate their landscape spirituality into a contemporary place designed for themselves but also tourists?

We worked with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia. They were the first aboriginal tribe that managed to get their land back from the white government in an area so close to a major city; Brisbane in this case. The land they got back was part of an island and has the second most popular camping sites in Australia.

However, the aboriginal peoples do not have camping site management experience, so we came in to help them build an ecotourism experience that would help them share their culture with guests and help make more money than before. We designed and built two glamping eco-shacks as examples of what they can achieve with enhanced camping experiences.

In the gardens, we proposed for the planting of bush tucker plants. The aboriginal peoples, who live in the outback have these special plants they eat called bush tucker. With their knowledge and wisdom, we created a beautiful indigenous garden that included both bush tucker and medicinal plants.

Planning landscape with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia / HM Design

You are a proponent of ego-less design, which is characterized by a deep respect for the environment and all of its inhabitants, existing cultures, and vernacular styles. Can you explain how you came across this design philosophy? What about your upbringing, your religious heritage, shaped that?

My childhood has heavily influenced the work I do in landscape architecture. My upbringing is in the philosophy of Jainism, which is one of the four main philosophies that came out of India. It’s by far the least known, because Jains don’t believe in preaching.

One of the main tenets of this philosophy is a Sanskrit concept called Ahimsa, which means non-violence to fellow beings, and non-violence to all other beings as well. In my family, we’ve been vegetarians for at least 3,000 years. The respect is so deep for other beings that Jain monks in India sweep the floor before they walk so they do not step on and kill any ants.

In true Jainism, they believe plants have feelings. In fact, modern science is confirming this, but my ancestors have believed this since 1,000 BC. True Jains don’t eat anything that grows below the ground — no potatoes or carrots — because every time you pick that plant, it’s dead. So you only pick a vegetable or fruit from a tree that continues living after you picked what you want. That is deep respect, even to plants. It’s all about low-impact living. This is the conservation ethic I practice in my work.

My projects are low-impact designs that respect everything. I practice a non-homocentric approach to planning, where everything is equal. You can call it vegan or ahimsa design and planning. I design non-violent spaces. For example, I identify all native species and make sure none of them are cut. And in all our projects, we only specify native plants.

And, personally, I have been practicing a vegan lifestyle for 13 years.

Lastly, you have called yourself a “holistic, contextual designer.” How do you think this is different from being a planner or landscape architect?

For me, there’s a big difference between holistic and contextual design. Holistic is when in my projects I look at animals and plants as my clients, too. So, when human clients come to me, I tell them: I see you as half of my clients, but the other half are the animals and plants. And when I perform a beautiful marriage of the two, we will have a holistic yet sustainable project.

Local communities are an important part of the holistic process. I involve them from the beginning. Local consultants also bring in amazing knowledge and wisdom. So, I consider the local consultants and communities, fauna, flora, and, of course, the clients’ financial needs, because a project has to be profitable for it to function. That is the holistic side.

I also look at myself as a contextual designer. I like to create projects in context with their cultural and physical environments. For me, placing in a glass, aluminum, and concrete building in the middle of a remote area with rich cultural architectural heritage is not contextual. My office carries out research both off-site and on-site in order to discover the local vernacular styles before starting on any project. We use a landscape design approach called the “continuity of the vernacular.”

Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design
Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design

This Is Your Brain on Nature

Edinburgh, Scotland research subject / Mobility, Mood, and Place research study

Neurosurgeon Edie Zusman, a real-life Doogie Howser who started medical school at 19 and has completed some 6,000 brain and spinal surgeries, said what landscape architects do saves far more lives than what she does. The early prevention of disease reduces the need for surgeries. Prevention is made possible by eating healthy foods and walking and getting exercise in green environments that lower stress and improve well-being.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting, Zusman and a number of landscape architecture professors delved into research proving that access to nature improves our health and well-being.

According to Sara Jensen Carr, a professor at Northeastern University, landscape architecture and public health have been intertwined since the beginning. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of the profession, started his career as a public health officer and writer. His first projects were the “siting and planning of camps so soldiers wouldn’t get sick.”

In our contemporary era of science, the brilliant intuition of Olmsted has only been proven by study after study. Most recently, a study in Philadelphia by five doctors with the University of Pennsylvania found that greening vacant, derelict lots led to “significant decreases” in feelings of depression and worthlessness among those in low-income communities living near the lots.

Studies on the health benefits of integrating nature into the built environment are also being conducted by design professors. William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been trying to figure out the “dose of nature” people need to recover from stress and regain the ability to pay attention.

He gave an overview of his intriguing research into how views of green streets “increase the rate of recovery from stress.” In one study with his associate Dr. Bin Jiang, the research team purposefully elevated stress levels in a few good-natured human guinea pigs, then asked them to watch videos of streets with different degrees of tree canopies — ranging from 2 percent tree cover to 62 percent. He found that “the greater the percentage increase of tree canopy, the faster the recovery.”

And in another study, Sullivan and his associate Dongying Li randomly assigned 94 students, equally male and female, to three settings: a classroom with no windows, one with a window view looking out on a barren landscape, or one with a window view looking out over greenery.

After students had completed 30 minutes of classroom activities in these different rooms, the students were given a 10 minute break. Sullivan and Li discovered those who had a green view bounced back, attention-wise, and were less stressed. This group “performed significantly better on standard tests of attention and showed significantly greater stress recovery than their peers who were assigned to classrooms without a green view.”

Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and fatigue by Dongying Li and WIlliam Sullivan / Landscape and Urban Planning.

Then Jenny Roe, an environmental psychologist who is director of the center for health and design at the University of Virginia, explained her research in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her team got some game folks to wear a device measuring alpha and beta brain waves, which looked somewhat similar to what Rick Moranis’ character was asked to wear in the Ghostbusters to determine if he was human or gatekeeper (see image at top).

Some very extroverted locals — who else who parade through town wearing EEG measurement devices? — followed a path through Leith, Edinburgh, a “rough area,” to a park. Others simply meandered through the city with their brain meter on. Roe found that among her research subjects, soothing alpha waves increased in the park while alert-state beta waves decreased. Alpha waves also decreased in busy urban areas.

But she found that “irrespective of which route people took” — through city or nature — “everyone’s stress levels were reduced after a 10-15 minute walk.” Walks, particularly for her older research subjects, increased exposure to “nature, color, wildlife, memories, and social interaction” — all good things.

Sullivan said all this research is meant to arm landscape architects, planners, and others who care about this with the facts they need to make the case to policy makers and legislators in their community.

Zusman wants designers to influence the big decisions — those key pivot points — that can help shape a healthier built environment. In Sacramento, where she practices medicine, Zusman is now part of the Design 4 Active advisory board, a multi-disciplinary group of health providers, planners, and design professionals, helping to integrate healthy design principles and guidelines into city projects.

Architecture Critics Win Vincent Scully Prize

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston / Wikipedia
Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia / Wikipedia

There are just a few full-time architecture critics left at national and metropolitan newspapers in the U.S. But as Robert Campbell, long-time architecture critic for The Boston Globe, noted: “We’ve survived without architecture critics in the past — and will do so again.”

With the rise of highly-local and specialized blogs and Facebook pages examining all aspects of design and development, architecture critics may indeed go the way of the dodo. But it will be a loss for us all.

At the National Building Museum, Campbell and Inga Saffron, architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, both Pulitizer Prize winners, were given the Vincent Scully Prize for their role in elevating public discourse on the built environment. They are influential voices who have not only shaped the debate in their own cities but have also informed other communities around the world.

Here are some highlights from a panel discussion led by Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for The Chicago Tribune.

On the rapid pace of urban redevelopment:

“Cities have really changed over the past twenty years. Before, the fear was Philadelphia would become the next Detroit and go into free fall, but now there is too much construction and the fear is gentrification.” — Saffron

“Banks and developers are now driving architectural forms. Architects have become an afterthought. They have so little control; I feel bad for them. The heroic architect myth is not reality.” — Saffron

“Developer-driven buildings aren’t very good. There are three firms that do about 90 percent of buildings in Boston. Redevelopment work is built quickly to minimal standards.” — Campbell

On the importance of place:

“I write about places, not buildings. There is an art to making great places. A great place can be a bedroom, lawn, neighborhood, city, or region.” — Campbell

Kamin then asked both Campbell and Saffron to name a great place.

For Campbell, a prime example is Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, which has “rows of homes dressed up in their tuxedos,” and for Saffron, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, “which is permeable and enables you to flow through.” (see images above).

On Washington, D.C.:

Saffron, who is known for her cutting critiques, had nothing good to say about the new NoMA district:

“It looks like the world’s biggest office park. They will likely run out of window patterns eventually. These buildings maximize every inch of floor space. They are all the same shape. It’s dispiriting.”

NoMA District in Washington, D.C. / Curbed DC

But Campbell is a big fan of the Washington, D.C. Metro system, designed by architect Harry Weese. As Kamin remarked: “It looks like civilization — those concrete vaults.”

Washington, D.C. Metro / Wikipedia

On their learning and writing process:

“If you don’t know what you are looking at, it forces you to look more closely.” — Campbell

“I’m a civilian, like every other citizen. We have a civic obligation to know how our cities are being built. I’m a big explainer. I don’t use jargon because I don’t want to lose my audience.” — Saffron

“I’m very embedded in a city. I’m a militant pedestrian and bicyclist. Walking and biking offers a more intimate pace. But dull stretches of streets will affect your whole mood.” — Saffron

“It’s easy to see the built world as a bar graph, a result of all these legal, financial, and political developments, nourished by bankers and developers deep in the caverns. But the physical environment merits its own evaluation, without looking at the subterranean forces.” — Campbell

And, lastly, advice for other writers of the built environment:

“Always go to the building or site. There is no substitution for being present. Renderings and photography can lie. See it with your own eyes.” — Saffron

“Inhabit the space. That’s the only way to see the relationships with other things — the context with other buildings and surroundings.” — Campbell

Rotterdam Redesigns Itself to Handle More Water

Port of Rotterdam / Wikipedia

Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the largest port in Europe. This 800-year-old city, which has a population of 630,000, is split into north and south sides by the River Nieuwe Maas. While the river is a major asset, it also increases vulnerability to climate change as sea levels rise. In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Dutch government officials, landscape architects, and planners discussed efforts to adapt Rotterdam and the rest of Holland to new realities.

After flooding in the early 1950s killed some 1,800 people, the Dutch were determined this would never happen again. According to Tim Van Der Staaij, a resilience officer with the Rotterdam city government, the country created a multi-layered system of “delta works” — a series of dikes, polders, and sluices to defend land against water. This system made Rotterdam, most of which is 6-7 meters below sea level, and its port possible.

But in recent years, climate change has made the intricate system that protects Rotterdam vulnerable. Van Der Staaij said the water management system has become “more unpredictable due to sea level rise, river discharge, groundwater rise, and excess rainfall.”

Given the city is already below sea level, Rotterdam has taken the approach that “we must accept the water; it’s better than fighting.” Once that conclusion was reached, city leaders saw an opportunity to redesign the city as part of a new Rotterdam resilience strategy, a set of “holistic, multi-level, multi-stakeholder” approaches.

In the past few years, the Dutch have invented new ways to “accept water,” including the water square by landscape architecture firm De Urbanisten, which is usually a public plaza with basketball court, but in extreme rain events becomes a temporary water storage space that “holds the water while the sewage system is over-taxed and then lets the water go later.”

Water plaza / Rotterdam Resilience Strategy

Van Der Staaij said the city is now working on redesigning all public spaces to store water, including the new central station now in development. As part of this, Rotterdam has invested heavily in putting all that water to good use through its “water sensitive city” program, which invests in green roofs, tree planting, street-level gardens, and new green “tidal parks” along the river.

Water sensitive Rotterdam / Urban Green-Blue Grids

Han Dijk, an urban planner working with the city on its resilience plans, highlighted the tidal parks along the Nieuwe Maas — also to be designed by De Urbanisten — as central to creating a Rotterdam that can bounce back from repeated flooding. “The city will build new land with fill, soften the river’s coasts, and open up and connect islands.”

Proposed tidal park in Rotterdam / De Urbanisten, Rotterdam Climate Initiative

And Gerda Roeleveld, a landscape architect with Deltares, a independent research institute, explained how the Netherlands has invested in 3D simulated models to help local policymakers, planners, and designers — as well as the general public — understand the potential impacts of climate change.

She showed off some sophisticated animations that visualize climate impacts, including the distribution of water — from the national to the site-levels. A set of these adaptation support tools, based in real-time data, are supporting Dutch communities in their efforts to devise new climate resilience and adaptation strategies, which they obligated to create by 2019.

Climate resilience planning tool / Deltares

Learn more about Rotterdam’s resilience and adaptation strategy.