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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
The important but unspoken message was that the smart design strategies of social urbanism need to be more widely applied around the globe.
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:
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.
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.
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.” Read the full review.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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. Structuresof Coastal Resilience is a significant contribution to the body of research on this topic. Read the full review.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Iceland, a land of glaciers and volcanos found directly over the Mid-Atlantic ridge, is entirely powered by renewable energy. More than 70 percent of the country’s energy comes from hydro power, while the rest is from geothermal sources — the incredible heat found just below the surface caused by red-hot subterranean lava fields. As the millions of tourists who visit each year cause the country’s power needs to grow, Iceland is expanding its geothermal systems. In the face of intense public protests that these systems are marring the stunning landscape — not to mention the usual Not-In-My-Backyard (NIBMY) complaints — Landsvirkjun, the national power company of Iceland, created a new landscape policy designed to create a more harmonious relationship between land and energy. And landscape architect Björk Guðmundsdóttir took the initiative to make this all happen.
At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Guðmundsdóttir explained that when she started her multi-year effort, there wasn’t a single design guideline for renewable energy projects. Her task was to create a new national landscape policy for these systems, while being the only women — and landscape architect — working with a team of all-male engineers.
Her first step was to understand the geothermal energy system development process, the legal frameworks that shape energy production, and the broader energy policies. One important high-level Icelandic policy guided her work: energy systems “should operate in harmony with the landscape.”
She spent time finding the gaps in the renewable power plant operations that were “open to the influence of design.” Establishing a working group within Landsvirkjun, she ended up creating a process that brings design into every stage of the renewable energy project development process — from the early environmental and visual impact assessments to the design concept, detailed landscape plans, and maintenance approach.
Guðmundsdóttir said creating design guidelines required thinking through all the ways how development touches the landscape. For example, “do you require buildings to be white so they blend in with the snow that covers Iceland for much of the year? Or instead should they be a neutral color so they blend with the summer landscape, when there are the most numbers of tourists?”
Landsvirkjun eventually settled on a series of design guidelines — seemingly simple but with a positive impact on new projects — that also create new roles for landscape architects. Guidelines include: create projects in harmony with their surrounding landscape, including careful site selection to minimize impact and roads that follow the topography. Minimize cut and fills. Re-vegetate, re-forest, and restore the landscape. Re-use all natural surface materials. Orient pipelines, which must be on the surface due to the extreme heat found in some places just a few feet below the surface, so they blend in as much as possible. And design every power-related building to be multi-use.
Aðalheiður Atladóttir, with A2F Architects, showed how the new landscape policy is shaping their work on a geothermal power station — Hagonguvirkjun, near Hagongulon Lake in the center of the country — and associated worker housing and hotel.
A2F created a power plant with a warm, inviting restaurant and visitor center — its entire form mimics the glacier and mountain ranges in the background.
And nearby there is a building that is both housing for the plant workers and a hotel that features a spa and greenhouse — a “nice place to chill.” The team will build gabion walls from stones collected nearby, so the “building looks like it grew out of the landscape.”
To bring in some fresh thinking and expand the conversation with her engineer colleagues, Guðmundsdóttir partnered with SUNY Syracuse landscape architecture professor Matthew Potteiger and his graduate students, who spent a semester studying in Iceland. The Americans completed a two-week planning and conceptual design charette with Landvirkjun in the very-hot landscapes of Krafta in northern Iceland, where both the first geothermal power plants and the newest are found. The goal was to create a new interpretation system for a geothermal power plant for Icelanders and tourists.
Potteiger said interpreting the “landscape of geothermal power” was challenging because the unique geophysical forces at work under the ground and the surface engineering systems are equally enigmatic. Plus, there are sheep, who strangely only hang out in groups of three, randomly grazing amid all the “industrial sublime.”
Exploring the site and all its sensory experiences, Potteiger and his students proposed some inventive, small ways design can enhance the visitor experience. For example, plumes from the geothermal vents can be used to create “steam paths that act as a wayfinding device.” Once a geothermal well has gone cold and its equipment is removed, the original soil, stones, and vegetation could be returned to the site, which would create a marker revealed through stages of vegetative growth. And sheep, which are “heat-seeking devices who love to cuddle in winter,” could be given designed social spaces, protective structures along pipelines, so they can cuddle in style.
If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile app: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI (please note that this video will not work in your mobile browser)
Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!
Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park! Note: the 360 video will not work in Firefox or Internet Explorer.
Option 2: Watch a 3D 360 Video on Samsung Gear VR
If you own a Samsung Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung phone, go to Samsung Gear via the Oculus App and search for “Brooklyn Bridge Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.
Why Brooklyn Bridge Park?
ASLA selected Brooklyn Bridge Park because it won the ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Less than one percent of all award submissions receive this honor.
Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Brooklyn Bridge Park this way: “The plan allows for and encourages different experiences in the different spaces, from being wide open and being fully engaged with the people around you to intimate, forested places. It’s remarkable.”
The award also highlights Brooklyn Bridge Park because it’s a prominent example of how to transform abandoned post-industrial waterfronts into spaces for people and wildlife. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential.
Why Virtual Reality?
The communications world is increasingly image- and video-driven. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life.
Virtual reality takes video to the next level. As you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.
Why did ASLA make this VR film?
Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Brooklyn Bridge Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality can educate the public about landscape design in a compelling way.
The video has multiple goals: promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada; explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public; and demonstrate the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like a cut-off, post-industrial waterfront into a beloved community park.
Why should landscape architects use VR?
Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Brooklyn Bridge Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.
For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.
ASLA VR Film Credits
Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Ian Tuason
Production Assistants: Ward Kamel and Idil Eryurekli
Narrator: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Post Production: Callum Wilkin Gillies
Thank you to Jamie Warren and Onika Selby at Brooklyn Bridge Park for making this all come together. At Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc, we appreciate the kind assistance of Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Hilary Archer, Jane Lee, and Lucy Mutz.