Is There a Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

Approach to Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia / TCL

Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.

Nonetheless, Treib answered his own question with resounding affirmation. In organizing the symposium, Treib’s goal was to focus on planting and landscape design that surpasses function and landscape ecology alone and brings in beauty. Addressing the concerns of ecology in landscape architecture has become nearly (and arguably) required. Accordingly, all of the speakers’ designs, or the projects discussed, are sustainable “to a greater or lesser degree.”

But building from the constraints created by location and environmental conditions, how can aesthetics and art inform design? And what level of beauty can be attained? Given we are in an environmental crisis, Trieb audaciously questioned the “narrow ambition” of designs that solely address ecological function, and the idea “that good morals automatically yield good landscapes.”

Speakers from around the world also explained how planting aesthetics are tied to histories. For example, Laurie Olin, FASLA, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked: “In design, one is never truly free of earlier sense of form, particularly those found in nature. Everything you do refers to everything else, whether you mean it to or not.”

Speakers employed the vocabulary of plant selection and form to connect to cultural, natural, and formal histories, deepening the discussion on aesthetics. Below are highlights from the weekend:

Planting to Illuminate Cultural and Natural Histories

Kate Cullity, a founding director of Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) in Adelaide, Australia, seeks to respect and illuminate cultural histories through her designs. These histories are brought to light through the selection and placement of plants. At the Uluru Aboriginal Cultural Center at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the design encourages the visitor to respect the Uluru’s culture and their right to the land (see image above).

Before the start of the project, Cullity relocated to the desert for one month, slowing down to learn the landscape and recording stories from the Aborginal people. In a rare rain event, she learned “how water moves in a dendritic way over the desert.”

Her time at the site influenced the ultimate design of the project: the cultural center was sited to give guests a meditative walk through the landscape before arriving. No change in grade was made across the entire site, as doing so would have altered the way water flowed, and consequently the growth of the existing plants. “Sometimes,” Cullity noted, “designing is not the answer. This was the answer here.”

In similar theme, others also referred to the importance of water, and lack thereof, as defining their planting habits. Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, an architect and landscape architect in Mexico City, discussed botanical geography, and the variations determined by “latitude and altitude.” He discussed designing in a subtropical climate and the importance of retaining stormwater.

Working primarily in the deserts of Arizona and Texas, Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA, is guided by the aesthetics of “Plant what will survive!” and “Own your own geography.” These tenents translate into: use native and drought-tolerant plants; pay attention to runoff and permeability; evoke the natural landscape features, such as arroyos; and look to where native tribes have found meaning in the landscape.

Landscape architects Thorbjörn Andersson of Stockholm, Sweden; Cristina Castel-Branco of Lisbon, Portugal; and Erik Dhont of Brussels, Belgium expressed the influence of their respective cultural histories in their planting practices. Andersson noted the poverty of the Swedish landscape as influential in his own career. His design of the Hyllie Plaza in Malmö, Sweden used one single species, the beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) to create a stylized beech forest. The tree’s architectural form, smooth silk trunk, the near-sterile understory: “It already looks designed in nature,” Andersson noted, adding, “plants become part of what signifies our culture.”

Beech trees in Hyllie Plaza, Malmö , Sweden / Thorbjörn Andersson

Dhont credits Belgium’s strong cultural heritage with defining his own body of work. “When you know heritage, it’s impressive to go in the footsteps of history.” He re-employs that heritage in his own work to new ends, such as using the topiary to guide and provoke encounters in a garden.

Topiaries at a chateau in Geneva, Switzerland / Erik Dhont

Castel-Branco, too, has merged the historic and the new in her own work. In a historic garden of exotic plants, she provokingly planted more exotic Sequoias after witnessing their success. She reminded the audience that the garden is an “eternal laboratory of adaptation,” which will grow in importance as the climate changes.

Planting as the Arbiter of Form

Other speakers focused on the formal abilities plants can offer a place. For Peter Walker, FASLA, his approach to planting has been a fifty-year journey to achieve what he experienced at the Parc de Sceaux, outside of Paris, France: the power of a landscape to instill a Gothic-cathedral sense of awe in the visitor. Walker has attempted to make architecture from plants, concentrating on the instant trees meet the ground on a flat surface. “I will not talk about a region or ecology—we’ve had enough of that,” Walker said.

Parc de Sceaux, France / Pinterest

Nonetheless, he admitted the relevance of place in his designs. In Japan, regarding subtle changes in the landscape is habitual, and his proposal to populate a landscape solely with a field of trees was easily accepted; in New York City, a similar design required thorough explanation to city stakeholders.

Echoing Walker, Andrea Cochran, FASLA, a landscape architect based in San Francisco, commented, “plants can shift how people think about environment. It’s about re-calibrating what is beauty.” Her landscapes, most notable for their edited, sculptural forms, nonetheless are determined by the California climate that lacks rain for six months of the year.

Richard Hindle, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, asked the audience to consider how plants and structures unite by examining vertical gardens, which bring together architectural and the garden-making approaches and allow for new paradigms, such as extending the anatomical and physiological possibilities of plants.

On a broader scale, Alexandre Chemetoff, a landscape architect and urbanist based in Gentilly, France, offered a similar point: “a tree is not an isolated subject,” and neither is landscape architecture. In his work that spans architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture, he works with the three disciplines in tandem, the design of one informing the others. “This is quite different than the idea of having things separate, one from the other,” he explained, demonstrating the example of a thicket of trees that serve as a natural cooling system to a cocooned building.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

New Maps Show How Urban Sprawl Threatens the World’s Remaining Biodiversity

Hotspot map of Baku, Azerbaijan / The Atlas for the End of the World

At the United Nations World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, next month, the McHarg Center for Ecology and Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania will display an alarming set of new maps. They show, in bright red, that the growth of cities worldwide is on a direct collision course with the world’s remaining biodiversity.

The study, of which these maps are a part, is titled Hotspot Cities and focuses on urban growth in the world’s 36 so-called biodiversity hotspots – large regions where unique flora and fauna is threatened with extinction. By combining data sets of 2030 urban growth forecasts from the Seto Lab at Yale University with the habitats of endangered species from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the study has mapped over 400 Hotspot Cities to reveal that over 90 percent of them appear likely to sprawl directly into remnant habitat harboring the world’s most endangered biodiversity.

Hotspot map of Tel Aviv, Israel / The Atlas for the End of the World

The study also zooms in on 33 of the biggest and fastest growing of these hotspot cities to assess the degree of imminent conflict between growth and biodiversity. The cities are Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Houston, Cape Town, Port-au-Prince, Baku, Brasilia, Santiago, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Sydney, Lagos, Rawalpindi, Mecca, Guangzhou, Esfahan, Osaka, Antananarivo, Ciudad de México, Durban, Tel Aviv, Guadalajara, Tashkent, Chengdu, Auckland, Davao, Honolulu, Perth, Jakarta, Bogotá, Guayaquil, Makassar (Ujung Padang), Colombo.

The 2016 UN-Habitat World Cities Report states that “urban and environmental planning provides opportunities and formal legal mechanisms for biodiversity conservation through design guidelines, building codes, zoning schemes, spatial plans and strategic choices, all coupled with effective enforcement.” Through detailed analysis, the study gauges the degree to which these sorts of mechanisms are being leveraged in the sample set of the 33 hotspot cities.

The conclusion is the overwhelming majority of these cities have not adopted long-term planning visions or mechanisms that include biodiversity values or, if they do, then they do not make such planning documents available or refer to the existence of such documents online. A notable subset set of cities such as Sydney, Perth, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, and Los Angeles do, however, and have transparent, readily available, variously-integrated planning documents inclusive of biodiversity protection across levels of governance.

Hotspot map of Los Angeles, California / The Atlas for the End of the World

A survey of the cities’ promotional materials, popular press, and institutional publications also indicates a low degree of cultural association with being hotspot cities, let alone hotspot stewards. Typically, one finds a city’s projected identity pertains to the characteristics of its urban core rather than its peripheral landscapes. Yet, the peri-urban landscape and its regional connections beyond, can not only support biodiversity but also provide cities with the essential ecosystem services they require. As Harvard ecologist Richard T.T Forman writes “you can have a small impact in a city center, but if you want to have a big impact, go out to this dynamic urban edge where solutions really matter for both people and nature.”

A major obstacle to the development of spatial biodiversity planning is also the apparent lack of baseline biodiversity data for each city. Furthermore, this data, where it does exist, tends to focus on wildlife in the city rather than on ecosystem integrity at the periphery. If cities are to properly understand their relationships with biodiversity, there is a significant need to develop and share measurement and monitoring practices that relate to the peri-urban zone and how this zone functions as a filter and conduit for biodiversity.

It is also important to note here that attention to biodiversity is not just a matter of protecting certain charismatic species, rather, biodiversity is a proxy for a healthy ecosystem, without which there can be no healthy city.

The overarching question to ask then is whether the growth trajectories of these hotspot cities can be redirected to avoid the further destruction of biodiversity, and if so how? Having taken the first step of identifying likely conflict areas as this study does, it is important now to recognize and understand the true complexity of the problem. The conflict between sprawl and biodiversity cannot be approached reductively or simplistically, as if sprawl (formal and informal) is only an outcome of economic and demographic growth and conservation only a matter of fencing off areas in its path.

The peri-urban territory of cities is a complex mosaic of different and often contradictory land uses in high states of flux. Indeed, the alteration of peri-urban land is not caused solely by urbanization but is also a consequence of extracting many of the resources required to support cities and their residents. The often invisible and myriad forces shaping these landscapes are not yet well understood by the urban design and planning professions, just as the novel ecology of these lands is not yet well understood by the scientific community.

Hotspot map of Antananarivo, Madagascar / The Atlas for the End of the World

The profession best able to negotiate complex landscapes such as the peri-urban is landscape architecture. Landscape architects work in equal measure with ecological and cultural data to build up holistic understanding of cities in their regional contexts. From that basis, with teams of ecologists and planners, scenarios for alternative forms of urban growth can be visualized and their costs and benefits weighed.

As both the custodians and immediate beneficiaries of the unique biodiversity at their doorsteps, the hotspot cities have a global responsibility and leading role to play in integrating biodiversity with development. It is our belief a better understanding of peri-urban territory, and the forces shaping it, is a prerequisite to the mitigation of further loss of biodiversity. This is not only relevant to cities in the world’s biodiversity hotspots, but cities everywhere.

To that end, we propose hotspot cities come together to form a global knowledge-creation and knowledge-sharing alliance to develop demonstration projects that show how urban growth and biodiversity can co-exist. The hotspot cities should lead the way in making the intent of the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be discussed in Kuala Lumpur next month, a reality.

This guest post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Atlas for the End of the World-Atlas for the Beginning of the Anthropocene, a comprehensive audit of protected areas in the world’s biological hotspots. Research team includes: Chieh Huang, Sara Padgett Kjaersgaard, Zuzanna Drozdz, Nanxi Dong, Rong Cong, and Josh Ketchum.

Do Views of Indoor Plants Improve Health and Well-Being?

Perkins + Will office, with plants installed for this research project / Micah Lipscomb

Do views of indoor plants have similar health benefits as views of nature or direct experience in natural environments? The benefits of nature exposure to human health are well documented.  However, little is known about the psychological benefits of exposure to nature indoors. We studied this topic in a research project at Perkins + Will’s Atlanta office.

The office’s nearly identical floor plans set the stage for a controlled experiment where a floor was filled with 129 plants for two weeks and then participants were tested for psychological well-being and objective memory task performance.

Office floor plan with plant layout / Micah Lipscomb and Kimberly Rollings

A crossover study was conducted where participants on another floor were also given the same tests without plants. The plants were then moved to the other floor, so that each participant was surveyed with and without the plants.

Data on perceived psychological distress (PERI) and memory task performance (digit span backwards) were collected during each study period from 63 employees. Light levels, cloudy days, self-reported physical and psychological health, and participant demographics were also documented.

Statistical analyses indicated that the plants only marginally improved the psychological health of participants. For the memory task performance, the participants actually performed better without the presence of plants than with the plants.

Survey results for psychological well being (PERI) of participants / Micah Lipscomb and Kimberly Rollings
Survey results for memory task performance (Digit Span Backwards) of participants / Micah Lipscomb and Kimberly Rollings

There are several possible reasons the plants did not have a substantial influence on the psychological health or short term memory of the participants. In an office, there are many factors that effect worker’s psychological well-being and task performance, and plants may go unnoticed in this setting.

One study participant observed that there was initial excitement about the plants among participants, but after a few days, the plants seemed to fade into the background, somewhat like furniture. This comment is consistent with previous studies that find participants may habituate to the presence of the plants; their beneficial effects may be relatively strong in only an initial period after their introduction into the setting.

The abundant natural light and views of nature in the office may have distracted from the influence of the indoor plants. Indoor plants would likely have a greater impact in a windowless basement without views of nature and daylight, like Milton’s desk in Office Space.

Milton from Office Space / YouTube

Previous studies have shown the greatest impact from plants in settings with less visual stimuli. The participants in our study had higher levels of reported psychological health than typical, so the influence of plants might be lower with these settings.

In other words, the presence of plants might benefit those who work in poorer quality environments and/or those with poorer quality psychological or physical health than participants in this study. A much larger sample size is likely needed to detect smaller anticipated beneficial effects of indoor plants when compared to effects of direct exposure to nature.

The experience of engaging with nature (in the form of an indoor plant) may be different when the participant is working on an activity at a desk as opposed to being engaged with the experience with movement. A potted plant on a desk does not compare to the rich sensory experience of being in nature. It is not surprising the health benefits documented in outdoor environments may not translate to an indoor setting.

While the results did not align with our hypothesis, further study is needed on the influence of plants in an indoor setting.

This guest post is by Micah Lipscomb, ASLA, senior landscape architect at Perkins + Will and Kimberly Rollings, assistant professor, School of Architecture, University of Notre Dame.

Buckminster Fuller’s Influence Continues to Grow

“To make the world work for 100 percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.” This is the ethos that drove the work of Buckminster Fuller, an influential 20th century designer, engineer, and inventor. Every year since 2008, the Buckminster Fuller Insititute has awarded a $100,000 prize to an especially-promising organization or individual embodying Fuller’s systems thinking and “comprehensive, anticipatory design science.” So far, the award has provided ten projects — including landscape architect Kate Orff’s Living Breakwaters — with the extra push in both publicity and funds to advance in scale, complexity, and ambition.

Past winners were prompted by moderators such as Andrew Revkin, senior reporter at ProPublica, and Susan Szenazy, publisher and editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine, to reflect on the evolution of their winning projects and discussed systemic approaches to the challenges of our time.

The 2107 winner is Bhungroo, from the Gujarat state of India (see video above). Bhungroo, which means “straw” or “hollow pipe” in Gujarati, is a simple, inexpensive system that enables farmers to capture and store water during peak monsoon season and then retrieve the water during the dry season. The invention allows female farmers below the poverty line to be self-sufficient year round, breaking free from cycles of debt and repression.

The organization also fosters a model of collective ownership over the stored water among the farmers. The co-founder Biplab Ketan Paul described the selflessness and “golden hearts” of the women farmers he works with as what inspires and sustains the project. When asked about the experience of winning the prize, he beamed and said, “We’re still in a dream.”

The idea for ecological design pioneer John Todd’s project, which won in 2008, came from close contact with ecological and economic crisis. He had been hired by a foundation to study ecological impacts of mountaintop removal and valley-fill mining in Appalachia, but, he said, “my colleagues and I became so horribly depressed at the scale of the devastation that we actually couldn’t function.” He changed course to find a regenerative, solutions-oriented approach, and his winning project — The Challenge of Appalachia — was born.

Todd’s solution — which aims to help Appalachian communities, boost the economy, and support the ecosystem — is a model for long-range biodiversity and socio-economic stability tailored to the region. When asked what an urban application of the same principles might look like, Todd said the surfaces of buildings have enormous potential as substrate for “all kinds of living systems that purify air, treat sewage, and generate foods.”

The Challenge of Appalachia / Buckminster Fuller Institute

The 2013 winner, Ecovative, a bio-materials company, manifests the Fuller maxim, “to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Ecovative’s goal is to end the use of plastic and styrofoam packaging materials made from fossil fuels, replacing them with materials made from fungus that are fire retardant, self-healing, and decompose after use. Ecovative grows these materials in their facilities in New York state. The mycelia lifecycle depends on a local supply chain — the materials are derived from metabolizing agricultural waste such as cornstalks or straw, which would have otherwise been discarded.

With the funds from the prize, the company focused on democratizing the technology with grow-it-yourself kits. Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief scientist, quickly learned the company must appeal to more than just a customer’s ethical impulses. “I really wish people would buy things just because they are green and good for the planet, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. We must be able to provide additional cost savings and value.” Their pursuit seems to be going well, as, in just one year, the company was able to displace 1.6 million pounds of plastic from the supply chain.

Ecovative packaging materials / Greener Package

Paying homage to Fuller’s emphasis on holistic approaches, the final panel of the day looked at the social implications of the work the winners do.

“Global inequality was not an accident, it was created by design.” said Greg Watson, director of policy and systems design at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. “We have been trained to think this is the real world. But the real world is what we create.”

The winners are a “beacon of hope and powerful counterpoint to the intellectual bankruptcy that threatens humanity’s continuous voyage aboard spaceship Earth. Gaia will survive our insults, and it’s really up to us to ensure that we continue to ride.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer at SWA/Balsley in New York City.

Urgent Biophilia: Connecting with Nature After a Disaster

Rarely have I worked on a project that I feel is quite as timely and potentially impactful as the Beach 41st Street Garden. With images of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean fresh in our minds, this story of how nature has helped one Queens, New York, community heal following Hurricane Sandy is incredibly relevant.

When we finished shooting this past spring, it was months before the name Harvey had been uttered on a weather forecast. But by the time September had arrived, and with it a new wave of destructive storms, we at TKF felt a renewed sense of urgency to shine a light on what we had learned through our work in Queens post-Sandy.

When Sandy’s storm surge engulfed the Rockaways, the devastation was intense. You get a visceral sense of what the residents of Beach 41st Street, a New York City housing residence, lived through in the voice of Celeste Grimes, one of the resident gardeners we interviewed for the film. She described it in apocalyptic terms.

In 2014, TKF chose the Beach 41 Street garden as a site to receive one of only six grants awarded to clusters of cross-disciplinary research teams to study how healing green spaces help individuals and communities recover following various kinds of trauma.

The team that applied for funding on behalf of the Beach 41 Street project included social scientists Lindsay Campbell and Erika Svendsen of the US Forest Service; Keith Tidball, Director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Disaster Education Network at Cornell University, Craig Desmond of Ecotone Building, and landscape architect Victoria Marshall, ASLA.

The team collaborated on a plan that would enable residents to revive the gardens and space; a healing exercise intended to meet what researchers understand is a desire innate in people to connect with nature, particularly in times of deep distress and trauma caused by nature.

For years now, social scientists, civic ecologists, horticultural therapists — among others — have been gathering evidence of the innate connection between people and nature, terming it biophilia. Expanding on that concept, Keith Tidball originated the term “urgent biophilia” to describe the intense need that arises post-disaster to connect with nature.

What the research team saw happening at the Beach 41st Street garden — between the gardeners and community and green space — was a living enactment of urgent biophilia. As they worked to restore the gardens, they were at the same time restoring themselves.

What we often miss in the media is the full scope of the damage that remains in the aftermath of the immediate aftermath of a storm. We know that recovery extends far beyond reconstruction and restoration.

But if our communities are to heal fully following natural disasters like Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria — and the countless future storms that are sure to arise in the coming weeks, months and years, we can’t ignore our green infrastructures. They are, without a doubt, essential to our well-being.

This guest post is by film maker Alden E. Stoner, who is also a board member of the nonprofit TKF Foundation.

Five Years After Superstorm Sandy, Is New York City Better Prepared for the Next Mega Storm?

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Five years ago, New York City began the long task of recovering and rebuilding in the wake of Sandy, one of the worst storms in the U.S. history in terms of physical devastation and loss of life. According to the National Weather Service, the cyclone generated a “worst case scenario for storm surge for coastal regions” in New York and its neighboring states. Today, as severe storms correlated with climate change escalate nationwide, is the city better prepared for the next mega storm? The answer is yes and no.

More nimble than the federal government, New York has taken a tactical, diversified approach to solutions that has some advantages. The NYC Panel on Climate Change 2015 triggered new thinking about human health risks and vulnerable populations and also built awareness that flood risk reduction must account for stormwater in the future.

OneNYC, an on-going mayoral initiative, seeks to strengthen community-based organizations to prepare and respond to disasters.

NYC’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s (ORR) climate change resilience guidelines introduced extreme heat and extreme precipitation to the area’s list of natural disasters and moves the discussion away from “protection” to “resilience” of the useful life of a critical infrastructure investment.

And the Department of City Planning (DCP) has recognized that the city’s zoning codes are ossified, opening significant opportunities for designers to produce a more resilient urban realm.

However, with the exception of Build It Back projects, no federally-funded resilience program has been implemented, leaving New York area residents virtually as vulnerable as, and certainly more frustrated than they were immediately after the storm.

More local agencies need to move the needle towards better waterfront planning and design by addressing ecological system benefits and increasing awareness of neighborhood needs. And the city needs to take steps to curb the root causes of climate change in the absence of federal leadership. If nothing else, the many resilient design lessons learned from Sandy have revealed the need for widespread change at the federal, local, and community levels.

At the federal level, most resilience implementation funding is based on stringent Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requirements, including the reconstruction of a damaged or destroyed property in the same location and elevation and using the same materials. The National Flood Insurance Program requires that you rebuild on affected land even if it is repeatedly flooded. Low-lying areas demonstrate that these approaches are no longer fiscally responsible. Relocation must be considered.

A post-Sandy design team, including Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA), McLaren Engineering Group, Garrison Architects, LTL Architects, Sage & Coombe Architects, and several city agencies, worked to address beachfront restoration location concerns in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens by providing modular, elevated lifeguard stations and comfort stations on their own “islands” to recoup area beaches. The team employed integrated wave attenuation and topographic change along with shoreline plantings to mitigate future storms.

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Locally, slow decision-making on FEMA-certified projects by operationally-strapped city agencies is being exacerbated by federal and local flood protection data variances. Additionally, FEMA’s maps do not adequately account for sea level rise and rapid rain accumulation, and it is politically challenging to change National Flood Insurance Program maps. Federal agencies should consider local conditions and seek to provide broader solutions on a local basis.

New York realizes that resilience requires a regional response, but action often succumbs to inertia in the face of budget shortfalls and cost uncertainty due to natural and physical conditions related to soils; contamination; utilities relocations; and stormwater collection, storage tanks, and pumps; and other considerations.

Many touched by Rebuild by Design planning and design efforts now feel they are not getting promised ecosystem services and broader community benefits and remain concerned about aging infrastructure, basement and street flooding, contamination, water quality, zoning, and related issues.

Communities are often confused by projects that purport to offer “protection” versus “flood risk reduction.” The elevation of these measures seems guided more by available construction dollars than by intelligent, regional strategies.

In partnership with Civitas, MNLA developed a visionary plan to support growing sentiment that the East River waterfront can serve as a major recreational and environmental resource for East Harlem, the Upper East Side, and all of New York City. We researched and analyzed conditions from 60th Street to 125th streets and conducted in-depth community and stakeholder outreach.

The result is a plan that identifies short, medium, and long-term opportunities that combine strategies to protect neighborhoods from storm surge, improve water quality, create littoral habitat, and expand waterfront recreation. This multi-faceted design approach is an example of feasible design solutions that can restore resilience to a critical link along Manhattan’s waterfront.

East River Esplanade / MNLA
East River Esplanade / MNLA

The key post-Sandy takeaway is that federally-promulgated resilience measures can have negative impacts on communities.

Instead, every dollar must be directed towards projects that provide multiple benefits that fuel future storm resilience.

As designers, we can enhance results through inclusive and comprehensive communications with all of our constituencies during the design process, engaging a spectrum of urban challenges, and proposing multi-faceted solutions for our clients.

This guest post is by Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) and practicing landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. Nielsen is also a professor of urban design and landscape architecture at Pratt Institute in both the graduate and undergraduate schools of architecture and serves as president of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.

Love and Fear in Los Angeles

Graphic by Margaret Gerhart

Sometimes things happen that make you question everything.

Two weeks ago, I walked along 103rd Street toward the corner of Grape in Watts with several community advocates and a selection committee from the California Natural Resources Agency. Viviana Franco and Maria De Leon from From Lot to Spot, the non-profit who applied for an urban greening grant, led us past Jordan High School and the Jordan Downs public housing development that is under redevelopment.

We described our proposal to the Agency, pointing out the portions of sidewalk to replace with shade trees and planting. Viviana had us meet in the beloved Heart of Watts community garden they installed a year ago, and showed us the parkway plantings and new concrete that brought patches of life and pride amid the crumbling curbs. As we walked, we talked about which trees would best shade people walking by and cool the apartment homes, which have no air conditioning. We noted the phone lines overhead, and the weeds and litter underfoot. We discussed native species and biodiversity. And maintenance.

A young man in a white suit and several teenage girls passed by on their way to school. Otherwise the sidewalk was empty.

Our group included John Jones from Council District 15, Haleemah Henderson of Watts Labor Community Action Committee, Amada Valle from the Heart of Watts garden, and Watts Gang Taskforce member Pinkus Crowther. We stopped at the corner of Grape at a large fenced lot where Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park will soon be. A few scraggly trees and one large one lined the fence opposite us on 102nd Street.

The light was red where Grape Street dead-ended into 103rd. A line of cars gathered. One driver leaned out his window to complain, laughing, to John about a new sign reading “No Right on Red.” John told him, “The community asked for it.”

Pinkus and I talked about the huge change trees could bring to the street.

“I just hope they don’t come cut their branches,” he said. “We plant trees and as soon as they start growing, they cut the branches so the police can see.” He turned to John, “Do you know if the police came to cut the trees yet?”

“Not yet, but they need to,” John said. He pointed across the lot at the big tree. “That big one. That’s where one of the toughest gangs in LA hangs out. The police need to cut it so they can see who is there.”

As we walked back towards the Heart of Watts, I said to Pinkus, “I know nothing of the situation here. But how do we balance immediate security with providing the very thing that can improve social cohesion, reduce criminal behavior, improve self-esteem, and build a community? Because we know trees and gardens can do that.”

“I don’t know,” he responded. I don’t know either.

This is where the tension lies. Which approach would you choose: fear, or love?

The night after I walked through Watts for the first time, my son’s best friend was killed there, on the same street I had walked on the day before. He and two friends went to a birthday party meant to bring youth from different communities together. They left the party without a ride, were attacked by a group of men, and beaten until he lay unconscious against an alley wall. One of the men pointed a gun at his friends. They ran for their lives. Two gunshots sounded. They returned to their friend, called 911, and tried to stop his bleeding. He died while they watched over him.

His friends are devastated. My eyes ache from crying. I cannot imagine the pain his family is going through. We all loved him. I will miss his kind smile and gentle nature and the days and weeks he spent with us. I will miss the unconditional love and support he gave my son during our own family struggles.

I’m grieving the only way I know how, by writing. As I grieve, I cannot help thinking about that tree as a symbol of the lives that are lost in places like Watts.

Trees provide the air we breathe. They cool our homes and our cities, protecting us from deadly heat waves. They absorb rainwater and protect us from floods. Planting more trees may even prevent senseless deaths like our dear one’s.

Drs. Frances Kuo and William Sullivan, ASLA compared Chicago public housing projects and found that trees and grass in the courtyard correlated with a greater sense of community, greater feeling of safety, less aggressive and violent behavior, and less impulsivity and irritability. A study with their colleague Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor found greater self-discipline (and fewer pregnancies) in teenage girls who lived in housing where trees and grass were. These studies illuminate the power of nature to improve mental health — to reduce the stresses and irritability that can lead to violence.

The systems so many (cities, school districts, housing developments, detention centers) have in place now — security cameras, security fencing, security guards, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), helicopter policing, reducing growth of trees and shrubs so people cannot hide behind them — these are based on fear. Fear of somebody doing something if we don’t control our environment.

This is the same fear felt by parents who keep their children inside and over-scheduled after the freer attitudes of the 60s and 70s when so many of us roamed our neighborhoods and creeks and parks by ourselves.

But what about design born of love? Love lets us imagine the best for all of our communities. Tree-lined, clean streets with safe sidewalks, public plazas and gardens for people to gather, public restrooms and parks where families feel safe. Shaded bus stops with benches and green schools with playgrounds open to the community at all hours. Jane Jacobs summed up a safe neighborhood with four words: eyes on the street.

I grew up in a neighborhood like this in the 70s. When our classmate was brutally murdered while walking home from school, our schools and parents taught us to walk in groups and know our neighbors, not to stay inside and hide. I lived in a neighborhood riddled with crack in the 80s, where gunshots went off regularly, few dared to walk after midnight, and our roommate was held at gunpoint at the corner deli. I’ve lived in a lot of situations in between, and I’ve known love and fear in all of them.

We need to overhaul the racist lending, housing, and justice systems that paved the way to where Watts and neighborhoods like it are today. Instead of the fear-based approach that led to barren projects surrounded by crumbling streets and punitive law enforcement, people deserve to be treated with compassion, humanity, and dignity. These communities need empathetic justice, medical and mental health care, education, job training, decent shelter, clean water, healthy food, and purpose.

People also need a respite from stress, a sense of community, self-esteem, beauty, and hope. These are things trees and gardens provide. Our children and teenagers, who are drowning in anxiety, need and deserve relief.

There are non-profits all over the city working for environmental justice. WORKS is a non-profit developer building affordable and sustainable residences with mental health services in LA’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The Trust for Public Land in LA has created 10 parks in the last eight years, including Watts Serenity Park, which opened in 2015. From Lot to Spot sees a more humane and beautiful Watts through planting street trees and community gardens. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee is leading the effort to build Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park.

We need to support these efforts, and others like them, by advocating for funds, programs, and services to help build healthier, safer communities without displacing people — to work towards social and environmental justice. Fear has had its chance, and it isn’t working. Let’s try more love.

This guest post is by Claire Latané, ASLA, LEED AP, SITES AP, fellow in innovation and leadership, Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), and senior associate, Studio-MLA.

ASLA Extremely Disappointed in Clean Power Plan Repeal

Coal power plant / Wikipedia

ASLA is extremely disappointed in Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which was projected to cut U.S. carbon emissions 32 percent by 2030. It comes at a time when American communities are bearing the destructive effects of climate change, with ravaging wildfires in the West and disastrous hurricanes in Florida, Texas, other Gulf Coast states, and in the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

These catastrophic events are costing our nation billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage, imperiling human health and well-being, and destroying fragile ecosystems.

While Pruitt’s announcement is devastating, it is not surprising. Since taking office in January, this administration has taken several steps to roll back critical environmental and climate change policies. However, ASLA continues to fight for federal, state, and local programs and policies that allow landscape architects to use sustainable design techniques to help communities become healthy, resilient, and climate smart.

Recently, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel of planning and design experts to develop a set of policy recommendations for mitigating and adapting to climate change through resilient design. The panel will publicly present its findings and policy recommendations in the form of a report in January 2018.

With the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the EPA must soon go through a full notice and comment period on the plan—I hope that all landscape architects and others interested in protecting our communities from the damaging impacts of climate change will join ASLA in weighing in on this critical issue.

This post is by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

Green Infrastructure Through the Revival of Ancient Wisdom

Before. ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award or Excellence. “Green Sponge” for a Water-Resilient City, Qunli Stormwater Park in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award or Excellence. “Green Sponge” for a Water-Resilient City, Qunli Stormwater Park in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / Turenscape

Gray infrastructures made of steel and concrete, which we built to connect our physical world, are shallow or even fake constructs that are destroying the real and deep connections between human beings and nature and among various natural processes and flows. The alternative is green infrastructure, or ecological infrastructure, the construction of which can be inspired by the ancient wisdoms of peasantry.

For the past twenty years, I have tried to revive some of these peasantry wisdoms and combine them with modern sciences and technologies to solve some of the most annoying problems in today’s urban environment, particularly around water. The solutions are simple, inexpensive, and beautiful and have been applied on a massive and extensive scale in over two hundred cities in China and beyond.

Gray Infrastructure and Broken Connections

Some people may think that our world, through our built infrastructure, is more connected digitally and physically than ever before: we have Facebook and WeChat on the one hand, and ubiquitous highways and pipelines on the other. But actually the opposite is true. More than ever we are disconnected from the communities we belong to, and we have alienated ourselves from our neighbors and from those we love.

Physically, the landscapes that we inhabit are visibly interconnected: motorways connect urban and rural settlements; power lines that transport energy connect power stations to individual families; pipelines that drain waste water connect our toilets to sewage treatment plants; aqueducts that transport drinking water connect reservoirs to our kitchens; airlines that transport food connect the farm in the southern hemisphere to the refrigerators in the north; trucks that carry fertilizers and herbicides on the highways connect city factories in the east with the peasants who farm in the rice paddies in the mountainous west.

We have created a connected world, but these connections are false: the landscape matrix and its invisible processes are fragmented and disconnected. The movement and cycles of water, nutrients, food, energy, species, and people are broken. The interconnected relationship between air, water, soil, nutrient, species, and people is being interrupted, and in a harmful way, more than ever before.

Let me offer an example concerning water. Over 75 percent of the surface water in China is polluted; 50 percent of China’s more than 660 cities are facing floods and urban inundation; and over 60 percent of China’s cities do not have enough water for drinking and for other uses. The groundwater table in the North China Plain drops over one meter each year; and over 50 percent of the wetland habitats have been lost in the past fifty years.

All these water-cycle related issues that impact our cities and our landscapes are actually interconnected, but the conventional infrastructural solutions designed to solve these problems are fragmented, isolated, and single-minded: We build water treatment plants to remove the nutrients that could be used in fertilizers for farming; billions of dollars are spent yearly on the construction of concrete dikes, dams, and pipes to control floods and stormwaters, but these structures eventually produce fiercer droughts, declines in groundwater levels, and habitat loss; a thousand-mile-long aqueduct built to divert water from Southern to Northern China caused serious damage to the ecosystem in the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River; ornamental gardens and landscapes as well as agricultural fields are over-fertilized and all those nutrients flush into the water system, polluting the rivers and the lakes. And again, the conventional solution is single-minded – build expensive water treatment plants that need huge amounts of energy (mainly from coal burning) to operate, which in turn create more air pollution.

An alternative solution might be the construction of green infrastructure, or ecological infrastructure, which creates a deep and true connection between man and nature and among various natural processes and flows.

The Ancient Wisdom of Peasantry

The connections between peasants and their farmlands illustrate the timeless interdependence of human culture and nature. One alternative to rebuilding the deep connections between human beings and nature and among various natural processes comes from the wisdom of peasantry, of field-making, irrigating, fertilizing, growing, and harvesting, which have transformed landscapes on a large scale and sustained humanity for thousands of years.

One category of peasantry wisdom is the making of fields through a cut-and-fill action. The peasant’s approach to cut and fill is one integrated action, meaning the earthworks created for farming happen on-site, with minimum costs for labor and minimum transportation of material to or from the site. It has, therefore, a minimum impact on the natural processes and patterns in the region. This tactic has been implemented by peasants in almost all parts of the world as a way to transform their otherwise unsuitable environments into productive and livable landscapes.

The second category of ancient peasantry wisdom lies in managing water and irrigating the fields. Modern methods of irrigation used in both farming and landscaping are represented by a system of pipes and pumps that is nearly invisible. It doesn’t relate to surrounding terrain and available water resources. The peasant’s approach to irrigation is deeply rooted in natural processes and patterns. Thousands of years of farming experience have made irrigation one of the most sophisticated techniques in agricultural societies. The use of gravity to irrigate the field requires precise knowledge, and the harmony between nature and subtle human intervention can turn such a serious science into an art form, an interactive medium of community building, and even a spiritual force.

The third category of peasantry wisdom is fertilizing. It is a magical component of traditional farming and a critical link, closing the circle by reusing the materials of human living. All wastes from humans and domestic animals as well as vegetative materials are recycled into fertilizers. Such a nutrient cycle is broken in our urbanized and industrialized settings. What peasants call fertilizers are today defined as “pollutants” in our lakes and rivers.

The fourth category of peasantry wisdom is growing and harvesting. Unlike planting and pruning in gardening to create a pleasant ornamental form, the peasant’s approach to planting is focused on productivity. Planting begins with the sowing of seeds, and the management process follows nature’s rhythm as a strategy of adaptation to the surrounding climate and conditions. Again, the self-sufficient nature of ancient agricultural economies requires each household to grow diverse crops, including grains, vegetables, fibers, medicines, fruits, timber, fuel, and even fertilizer proportionately to the seasonal needs of the family, and within the limits of nature and human capabilities. The meaning of harvest goes far beyond the production of foods and products. Harvests are productive in terms of their capacity to enrich the soil, purify the water, and make the land healthy. In other words, the peasant’s fields are net producers instead of net consumers of energy and resources.

This is not to say that one should give up the comfort of urbanization and go back to a peasant’s primitive life. These essential features of peasantry illuminate the underlying basis for rebuilding the connections between nature and human desires, balancing natural processes and cultural intervention, and help us to reclaim the harmonious relationships between human beings and nature.

Revival of the Ancient Wisdom to Create an Alternative Infrastructure

Imagine what our cities would look like if we did not drain the rainwater away through pipes and pumps, but instead used the ancient wisdom of peasantry in field-making to create a green sponge in the city that retains the rain water, creating diverse habitats and recharging the aquifer. In this way, the green spaces in the city become an ecological infrastructure that provides multiple ecosystem services that regulate the urban environment to be resilient to flood or drought, allowing clean water and food to be produced right in the middle of the city. Biodiversity would be enhanced dramatically; urban residents would have a green network for jogging, commuting, and relaxing; and real estate values would increase because of the beauty of, and access to, nature! That is what we have tried to do in many cities in the past twenty years: to transform the city into a sponge city.

Before. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park, China / Turenscape and Cao Yang
After. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park, China / Turenscape and Cao Yang

Imagine what our cities would look like if we abandon the high and rigid concrete flood walls and instead revive the ancient wisdom of peasantry and create vegetated terraces at the river banks that adapt to the up and down of the water flow. Ecofriendly solutions like ponds and low weirs are designed to slow down the flow of water and let nature take time to nourish itself, so that diverse habitats can be created that enrich vegetation and wild life, allowing nutrients to be absorbed by the biological processes! That is what we have done to transform the mother rivers in many Chinese cities.

Before. ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Guizhou Province, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Guizhou Province, China / Turenscape
Before. ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway / Kongjian Yu
After. ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway / Kongjian Yu

Imagine what our cities would look like if the nutrient-rich (eutrophic) river and lake water could be cleansed through the landscape as a living system, in the way that peasants have recycled organic waste, instead of using expensive sewage plants to remove the nutrients. We could produce clean water and nourish the lush vegetation. Native biodiversity could be improved. We could turn recreational spaces into urban parks and, in this way, urban parks could become producers instead of consumers of energy and water. That is what we have done to transform the landscape into a living system that mediates polluted water.

Before. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park, China / Turenscape

Imagine what our cities would look like if the brown fields of industrial sites are recovered by the processes of nature, where the ancient wisdom of the pond-and-dyke system is adapted to create a terrain that collects rainwater (instead of draining it away through pipes) and initiates the evolution of a plant community, remediating the contaminated soil during this process. At the same time, the industrial structures are preserved as sites of cultural heritage in the city. A unique landscape is created, featuring dynamic native vegetation and a touchable memory of the past, which attract urban residents because of its beauty as well as the diverse wild life that it maintains in the middle of the city. This is what we have done in several industrial cities.

Imagine what our cities would look like if we turn some of the urban land back into productive landscapes instead of into expensive lawns or ornamental gardens, so that the long-distance transportation of food can be reduced. Let the rice, sunflowers, beans, and vegetables be grown in the city, let the sun and moon tell the time for sowing and harvesting, let the seasonal change be noticed by the urban residents, let the process of food growing be known to the young, and let the beauty of crops be appreciated! This will not only make our city more productive and sustainable, but nourish a new aesthetic and a new ethics of land and food. This is what we have done in some Chinese cites.

Before. Quzhou Luming Park, Zhejiang Province, China / Turenscape
After. Quzhou Luming Park, Zhejiang Province, China / Turenscape

By reviving the ancient wisdom of field making, irrigating, fertilizing, growing, and harvesting, and integrating this wisdom with the contemporary sciences and arts, we are able to build alternative infrastructures – nature-based green infrastructures replacing the conventional gray infrastructures – that are able to solve some of the problems in today’s urban environment, particularly around water, which are difficult or very expensive to solve through conventional means. Living with nature is inexpensive and easy, comfortable and beautiful, and an art of survival.

This guest post is by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape and Cheung Kong Scholar Chair Professor at Peking University, and founder and president of Turenscape. He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

This article was first published in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Summer 2017, volume LXX, number 4).

America’s Memorials Can Be Designed to Evolve

Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia / Wikipedia

Confederate monuments and other long-tolerated symbols of racism are beginning to be expelled from America’s civic landscapes. As we engage in these acts of reconciliation and removal, it is worth a significant pause to consider why we seem to habitually design memorial landscapes for indelible permanence in the first place?

A memorial – whether a monument or otherwise — is simply a tangible container for memory through time. We benefit from having designated places to recall memory and emotion – whether grief, pain, fear, anger, love, respect, reverence, gratitude, awe, pride, or joy.

Part of the complexity of being human means that it is possible to feel multiple emotions simultaneously, and also that our feelings and memories are dynamic and can change over time. New knowledge and experience, and a genuine willingness to face difficult truths can significantly alter and expand our perception.

As such, might there be virtue in designing certain memorial landscapes to allow for a degree of fluidity and change?

Moving forward, American monuments and memorial landscapes in the 21st century may better be able to embody shared cultural values; reflect an inclusive and emotionally-intelligent view of history; mirror and support dynamic emotional processes; aid healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation; honor diversity, accept death, and truly affirm life if they are designed to consider the virtues and qualities of transience, adaptability, and vitality.

Transience

Despite the air of permanence many of these historic icons convey, it is laudable that several local governments and institutions have acted boldly to remove Confederate statues. A monument that marks an important time in history, but that simultaneously is widely perceived to be symbolic of racism, may best be retired or kept in a museum, rather than in the heart of a public square or civic space.

A 2017 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 1,500 Confederate symbols can be found in public spaces across the country – they are monuments as well as named roads, municipalities, parks, institutions, and public works. The “undoing” of this landscape legacy is more easily wrought for a small statue than it is for an immense earthwork like Stone Mountain in Georgia, but no memorial is immune to the laws of impermanence.

As the voices of the oppressed are increasingly heard, and intolerance of hatred leads to action, our public and private landscapes should be able to adapt as we literally rewrite history with greater honesty, compassion, inclusion, integrity, maturity, apology, and courage.

It is time that we finally own the stories of extreme colonial and racist violence that undeniably define the conquest and development of the United States as a country. Realizing the long overdue expiration date of a monument whose presence detracts from equality should cause us to consider that not everything we erect in stone, bronze, and steel should last forever.

In 2015, three statues representing the Spanish missionary Junipero Serra were vandalized in my home community of Monterey County, California. Like Robert E. Lee, Serra practiced and promoted slavery. He and his missionaries displaced thousands of Esselen, Ohlone, Costanoan and other native people from what had been their homeland for millennia. Colonial violence and oppression included rape, slavery, abuse, isolation, exposure to disease, and deliberate suppression of language and culture.

The beheading of a statue at the Lower Presidio in Monterey occurred in the same year Serra was canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church. While some lamented the defamation of the city’s co-founder, and the damage to this 1891 relic of post-contact California history, it is clear that these statues, similar to those of Lee, symbolize racism. Even more insultingly, they morally validate an individual who contributed to the near extinction of the Esselen people and many other tribes that were severely oppressed under missionization.

Headless Junipero Serra statue / US Franciscans

Even if one or more of our local Serra statues were removed or relocated, the Spanish names prevalent here and throughout California convey a daunting dominance, rendering the first names given to our local geography largely forgotten, and the living community of the Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen Nation, who have yet to gain federal recognition, nearly invisible.

Landscape is not always a mirror of the diversity of cultures that inhabit it. As we look closely at what our own cities and neighborhoods fail to reflect, it is worth considering what kind of reconciliation can be achieved simply through acts of deconstruction and renaming.

Adaptability

While grief may leave a permanent scar, and render permanent change within an individual or a community, grief is also a dynamic and ongoing process. How can a memorial wholly acknowledge the severity of trauma and loss, while inspiring hope for the recovery of the broken-hearted? How can we remarry simple civic ritual to our most important public spaces?

In the case of the National September 11 Memorial, for example, beautifully and sensitively designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, FASLA, what would it mean to the people of New York City (and to the country and even the world as a whole) if one of the two “voids” that symbolize loss in the footprints of the towers were to someday be partially filled? What might it mean to extend the swamp white oak grove to a lower level – to fill the voids with life, once the cascading water has washed away the rawness of grief? What if there were an opportunity for individuals to ritually contribute to this physical transformation – one shovel-full of soil at a time? What kind of deeper healing and forgiveness might be able to occur if there were a collective gesture made to physically mirror a transformation beyond the initial, radical enormity of grief?

National September 11 Memorial / PWP Landscape Architecture

What do we want this memorial to reflect about our culture 100, 500 or 1,000 years into the future, whether it is still intact, or an archaeological relic. Relentless and permanent grief? Resilience? Forgiveness?

Vitality

Should memorials be hard or soft? Inanimate or living? The concept of a memorial garden or grove honors life with vitality itself. Cemeteries that encourage tree planting instead of headstones are becoming increasingly common, as are natural burials in which the body is allowed to decompose underground, feeding the biotic community in the soil, versus being chemically embalmed and preserved in an impenetrable coffin.

The 9-11 Memorial hosts a Survivor Tree Seedling program, in which seedlings from a Callery pear tree that survived the attack are gifted to communities that have endured tragedy. This achieves the highest good that a memorial possibility can – breeding compassion in the present moment, and in the form of a living and life-giving tree.

September 11 survivor tree / Smithsonian

A memorial need not be bound to one particular place – and therefore may be more widely accessible.

As my mother was a lover of birds, I have chosen to remember her through them. Hawks, owls, wrens, robins, cranes, indigo buntings, cormorants, warblers, finches, sparrows, crows. Each bird reminds me of something different about her, each inspires a unique affection, and each encounter uplifts.

Californian condor / Jessica Neafsey

In choosing to remember her this way, the mountain valley that descends from my east-facing deck, over which countless birds soar, has become an arena for reflection and remembrance of her. The sky itself has become a bridge to the unconditional love I still feel with her. A memorial need not be made of or bound to the Earth.

In the words of Celtic poet and author John O’Donohue, “not all woundedness succeeds in finding its way through to beauty of form. Where woundedness can be refined into beauty, a wonderful transfiguration takes place.”

I hope the unrest we are living through leads to nothing less than a renaissance of American memory, which will see our landscapes adapt to reflect unprecedented American wisdom, compassion, inclusion, and grace – until it’s time to revisit our storytelling, once again.

This guest post is by Jessica Neafsey, ASLA, founder of Jay Blue Design in Carmel, California.