It’s Time to Get Political

Earth Day political rally, National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Earth Day
Earth Day political rally, National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Earth Day

Social justice. Environmental stewardship. Enduring aesthetic beauty. An expanded role for landscape architects. These were the predominant themes in the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

These goals are admirable and worthy of the profession’s best efforts. But what many of the speakers at the summit neglected to discuss – as did the authors of the original declaration 50 years ago, upon which LAF was established – is that landscape architects must increase their access to power if their hope of a society more reflective of their core values is to be realized. The act of envisioning alternative futures – something landscape architects excel at – is a political act. It’s time we build upon our design acumen by participating directly in the legislative landscape.

So when the LAF asks what we need to prioritize over the next 50 years, my answer is the continued development of design intelligence through research and practice is a necessary but insufficient means of achieving the profession’s lofty ambitions. We also need a strategy for placing more landscape architects into the elected, appointed, and bureaucratic offices where the big decisions about how to plan, design, and manage the land are made. This is how we construct a positive feedback loop between private and academic practice, which can bring invention and creativity, and government, which offers a tremendous scale of impact.

Building this electoral infrastructure won’t be easy, but it should become a core component of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s and the LAF’s post-summit work. These organizations can create a mechanism for identifying and supporting potential candidates for public office from within the profession.

Though the profession is not in the same financial position as, say, trial lawyers, the good news is many of the most impactful elected positions are not prohibitively expensive to pursue. There are 7,382 state legislative offices, most of which are part-time and would allow landscape architects to remain in their private practice or academic positions. The same is true of the nearly 1,500 city council positions that are spread across the nation’s largest 250 cities. Surely our profession can muster a handful of worthy and willing candidates for at least a few of the nearly 9,000 positions available to our members.

In addition to putting some of our established and emerging voices forward as candidates for elected office, the ASLA and LAF should partner with academic departments of landscape architecture to build a pipeline for placing our new graduates in the state and federal agencies responsible for regulating and financing the bulk of our professional work: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Bureau of Land Management, among others.

Fortunately, much of this work has already been done for us. The Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program, a two-year leadership development program aimed at recruiting and grooming the next generation of public servants, is readily available to anyone who has recently earned a graduate degree. The ASLA and LAF are already planning to host a series of webinars aimed at guiding landscape architecture graduate students through the PMF application process. They should now look for ways to provide incentives for students who are interested in pursuing this path, including travel scholarships to and from the PMF interview sites.

ASLA should also create professional and student award categories that recognize excellence in policy-related work. And our academic departments should better prepare our students for this option by broadening the scope of design education to include coursework in policy analysis and, where appropriate, dual-degree offerings in landscape architecture and public policy.

Our colleagues in architecture and urban planning blazed this path decades ago, and their dominance in professional staff ranks of the HUD, DOT, and EPA reflect the success of their strategy. HUD’s award criteria for its Choice Neighborhoods grant program is nearly identical to that of the LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) rating system developed by architects and planners in the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Their influence on this vital program is not the result of boisterous or pleading rhetoric. It is because the Choice Neighborhoods program, and many others like it, was designed by the CNU’s own architects and planners — people like Shelley Poticha, Polly Trottenberg, and Shaun Donovan. Ceding this professional space to CNU planners and architects is akin to sitting at home on Election Day and complaining about the results.

As a junior staffer in the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Obama’s first term, I worked alongside many of these professionals. I remain convinced that for landscape architects to achieve a level of success commensurate with the scale of their stated ambitions, they must wade directly into the muck and mire of electoral politics. CNU became the conduits for channeling the creativity and intelligence of planning and architectural practice into the rule-making and regulatory power of the federal government. It’s time that ASLA and LAF do the same.

This guest post is by Billy Fleming, Student ASLA, doctor of city and regional planning candidate, University of Pennsylvania.

The New Landscape Declaration: Perspective and Critique (Part 2)

LandscapeDeclarationLogo
New Landscape Declaration / LAF

The second day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation‘s New Landscape Declaration:  Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future offered critical responses to the 23 declarations delivered on the first day of the event and looked ahead to the next 50 years. Afternoon sessions were divided into five panels, each representing a different aspect of landscape architecture: academic practice, private practice, public practice, capacity building organizations, and emerging voices. Each panelist gave a short talk before engaging in a group discussion, addressing audience-sourced questions, and offering perspectives on what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years:

Academic practice: Maintain the value of the “long view”

“Academics combine teaching, scholarship, and service” while “taking the long view: looking back, then to now, and forward,” argued University of Illinois professor Elen Deming, ASLA, moderator of the first panel. The panel largely resisted responding to the more-urgent cries for action from the first days’ declarations, with Jacky Bowring, professor at Lincoln University, cautioning, “there is power and danger in the language we use.”

The academicians saw the future of landscape as both cultural art and applied science. While Anu Mathur, ASLA, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, championed “design as a field of inquiry” in which “design tools and techniques are our academic science,” Susan Herrington, ASLA, professor at the University of British Columbia, reminded the largely-professional audience that design schools “do not train scientists,” citing long hours in the studio. Yet a question from the audience concerning the rising costs of education revealed that a lack of scientific rigor in landscape architectural research limits access to external funding that could help lower escalating costs.

Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein
Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein

Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor at Syracuse University, spoke to the power of design writing and criticism in spreading ideas. Other panelists noted the academy’s global reach comes from the increasingly international students it recruits and where schools build partnerships.

Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, professor and chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University, delivered four points the panel saw as critical to the future of academic practice: 1) commit to frameworks of learning, 2) avoid binaries and ideologies, 3) encourage student thinking and action, 4) increase diversity and range of students.

Private practice: Lead through collaboration and deep expertise

The private practice panel was moderated by Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), who emphasized that practitioners deal with the challenges of not only serving clients and achieving design excellence, but most also “run profitable businesses, all without harming the earth.” In their contribution toward a new declaration, the practice panel called for firms to become increasingly adaptable and gain deeper expertise.

Joe Brown, FASLA, consulting advisor at AECOM, insisted that “practices must respond to students’ ambitious ideals.” He later added that larger firms can act as teaching institutions as well, helping students achieve their new ideas. Thomas Balsey, FASLA, founder of Thomas Balsley Associates, agreed that in private practice, “a commitment to growth and evolution” can come from being open to what students bring. Through internships and the induction of recent graduates, Balsley offered ”student-led seminars” as a bridge between the ideas of the academy and the constraints of contemporary practice. Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, claimed “education in firms will be the biggest draw in future private practice.”

The panel addressed the importance of having both deep expertise and leadership skills as landscape architects manage complex, collaborative projects. Mark Johnson, FASLA, co-founder of Civitas, noted that being a leader isn’t just about being a “good generalist, but also an expert.” Balsley, who saw collaboration as the key for smaller firms to get big commissions, elaborated: “you need preparation and dedication to being an expert to be capable of collaborating.” Or as Gustafson put it, “to let landscape lead, you have to be the smartest person in the room;” but also be pro-active: “know your experts and demand what you need from them.”

Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Adding a more critical voice to the private practice panel was Keith Bowers, FASLA, founder and principal at BioHabitats. Noting he is often on the other side of these collaborations, providing ecological design services, Bowers re-asserted the importance of private landscape practices to lead by “turning around political and financial institutions.” He emphasized the importance of sticking to your environmental values and having “conviction, spirit, and humility in everything you do.”

Public practice: Change policy to achieve impact

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, led the public practice panel, which advocated for their important role in “defending and expanding” landscape’s role, all the while “creating places of experience that stick with people throughout their lifetime.” Acknowledging the stigma of bureaucracy, Nette Compton, ASLA, senior director of ParkCentral and City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, said to “young professionals: you can get a lot done at a young age;” her own rise in the New York City parks department being but one example.

Joking that landscape architects are a “shade-loving species,” Mark Focht, FASLA, former ASLA president and senior official in Philadelphia’s parks department, joined others on the panel in suggesting landscape architects must “push themselves out there” into positions of power and “demand design excellence for under-served communities.” This point was affirmed by Deborah Marton, executive director of New York Restoration Project, who noted that “private dollars rarely go into low-income places.”

Going one step further was Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture for U.S. General Services Administration, who encouraged landscape architects to be “infiltrators and insurgents,” using policy as a mechanism to deliver action. Citing his involvement in the Obama administration’s efforts to restore pollinators to health, Gabriel thinks re-conceptualizing policy through ecosystem services “is where our greatest future and capacity lies.”

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Hilltop Landscape architects
Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Rios Clementi Hale

Picking up on the Beth Meyer’s keynote speech and Martha Schwartz’s declaration from the first day of the LAF Summit, Edward Garza, CEO Zane Garway and former mayor of San Antonio, challenged landscape architects to “embrace the political world” and even to run for mayor.

Capacity organizations: Design a path to increased diversity

As demonstrated by the summit itself, capacity organizations like LAF play a crucial role in forging the future of landscape architecture. Having heard all the declarations and much of the audience and Q & A, the panel, which included representatives from the LAF, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architecture (IFLA), Public Architecture, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), acknowledged how important diversity is to the future of the profession. Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, announced a multi-organizational effort entitled Mirroring the Nation, which is meant to attract and support more minorities to the profession, so that “our profession might better mirror the population it serves.”

The panel also called for landscape architects to have more impact on a global level. Leading the cause was Raquel Penalosa, ASLA, who is using her position as President of IFLA Americas, to “work globally in the service of localities. We must be humble and listen” closely to what communities want. And IFLA president Kathryn Moore said the world’s tens of thousands of landscape architects can have more impact by forming an “interdisciplinary vision” based in “common values,” particularly given the field is one of the fastest growing worldwide.

LAF President Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, and Somerville debated a bit on whether a “new narrative” was needed to achieve greater public awareness, with Deutsch calling for an entirely new set of messages, and Somerville arguing that “we are making progress with our current messages among some groups — like the older, wealthier, and better educated — but need to better reach diverse audiences. We need to get the messages out where they need to be.”

Emerging voices: Promote the next generation

With the help of Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, the emerging voices panel assembled a group of recent LAF Olmsted scholars. An appropriate ending to a summit on “the future of landscape architecture,” these future leaders each wrote their own declarations, which they then presented to the 700-plus crowd.

Leading off was a 2015 University Olmsted scholar Joanna Karaman, Student ASLA. Now working as a landscape designer at OLIN, Karaman challenged landscape architects to “be honest about how we represent what we build.” Her work in time-based media (Karaman is also working on a film about and for the LAF Summit) seeks to bring power to the profession through the use of videos that can make more accessible the volatility and transformational potential of landscapes.

Following Karaman was Nina Chase, ASLA, senior project manager at Riverlife in Pittsburgh, who advocated for “capitalizing on the resurgence of fun” through short-term pop-up projects that can serve as prototypes and catalyze public participation. Embracing the mantra of “test before you invest,” Chase suggested that developing projects incrementally is both good for creating fun, but also for building resilience to climate change.

Scott Irvine, a 2015 University Olmsted scholar from the University of Manitoba, delivered a message from the Canadian plains, cautioning that landscape architects should beware of “becoming overly urban,” and that too often now, “regionalism stops at the edge of the city itself.” Another caution was issued by Timothy Mollette-Parks, ASLA, associate principal at Mithun, who argued that “landscape can’t be formulaic, and we must not lose our dedication as designers.”

Wrapping up the panel was the 2016 National Olmsted scholar, Azzurra Cox, Student ASLA, a recent graduate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, who called for landscape architects to engage in what she calls “critical ethnography: design as a humanist, political, and narrative act.”

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

The Public Spaces of the Future: Up for Negotiation

Demo:Polis / Carolina Leite
Demo:Polis / Carolina Leite

The jury is in. Over the next fifty years, the world’s cities will face unprecedented stresses from a changing climate, growing populations, and issues of security, resource scarcity, and civil unrest. In the design professions, we like to think our work can help resolve these issues. In the U.S., over the past century, we have debated the role of public space to ease the challenges faced within our urban environment. This conversation will not end anytime soon, nor should it. However, if we continue to place our trust and faith in urban public spaces we must re-examine two fundamental questions: how will we define success within these spaces, and who will we allow to shape them?

Demo:Polis, an exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, brings these exact questions under the spotlight. Through a diverse set of examples, we see traditionally-successful projects commissioned by powerful institutions – grand urban plazas and lush, popular parks – juxtaposed with smaller and less familiar spaces made publicly valuable by a handful of ordinary people. The contrasts force us to question the assumptions that shape our understanding of public space: Is a space less valuable if it supports democracy and community but isn’t popular? Who is allowed to shape the character of a space – its boundaries, capabilities, and purpose – and who ultimately decides its worth?

Whatever the viewer takes from the exhibition, at least one theme became clear among the examples presented: the urban public will not wait for its invitation to shape the space it inhabits. Where there is a need to organize, cooperate, be seen or heard, people will find or create spaces to fulfill these goals.

Such “by the public, for the public” projects are the real strength behind Demo:Polis and remind us the spaces we design do not stop changing after they have been constructed. Rather, our grand and expensive projects exist within a countless network of daily human interactions and interventions – some adversarial, some unifying, many completely benign – that continuously shape the meaning and character of a public area. Despite their small or nonexistent budgets, informality, and frequent messiness, these individual actions and reactions refuse to be  subordinated.

By leading us to these observations, Demo:Polis suggests something that we have known for many years but often struggle to remember. The cities of 2050 will not be shaped solely by powerful governments, deep-pocketed investors, or high-profile design firms. They will not strive for beauty or popularity alone. Rather, they will be formed by powerful forces: communities unwilling to – or unable to – withhold their influence on public space or remain passive in meeting their own needs.

As we consider the role of urban space in creating tenable cities, and our role as designers in shaping urban space, we must also choose whether to acknowledge this public influence or ignore it.

This guest post is by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) and Joseph Bivona, senior project manager, MVVA.

The New Landscape Declaration: Looking Back Over the Past 50 Years

Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair
Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair

At the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, which met in Philadelphia last week, more than 700 landscape architects offered personal declarations and contributed their ideas, all in an effort to shape the 50-year follow-up to LAF’s original declaration of concern, published in 1966 amid massive political and social change and an era of environmental degradation in the United States.

Although the focus of the summit was on forging a new declaration and vision for the profession that can guide the efforts of landscape architects over the next five decades, there was also a call to “critically reflect on what landscape architecture has achieved over the last 50 years.”

Amid all the declarations and discussion, a few major themes came out of the reflections on what has shaped landscape architecture since 1966:

The American environmental crisis went global
From the original declaration: “A sense of crisis has brought us together.”

In his introductory remarks, LAF President Kona Gray, ASLA, was quick to note that in the 1966 declaration, “it was all about the American landscape.” The original declaration cites concerns that “Lake Erie is becoming septic, New York City is short of water, the Delaware River is infused with salt, the Potomac River with sewage and silt.” Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, noted that this 1966 description of the American environment was in sharp contrast to what Ian McHarg, influential landscape architect and one of the co-writers of the original declaration, simultaneously referred to as “oriental harmony” of the hydraulic civilizations of Asia. Yet 50 years later, Yu, along with Alpa Nawre, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Kansas State University, were struck by similarities between 1950’s America and modern China and India today, where development has also led to environmental problems at an unprecedented scale.

In addition to the local crises of pollution, environmental degradation, and habitat loss that has run rampant in the developing world in the past few decades, new overarching global crises have emerged in the form of human-induced climate change and rapid population growth.

Landscape architects got political
From the original declaration: “We pledge our services. We seek help from those who share our concern.”

While the 1966 declaration does not directly address politics, according to keynote speaker Beth Meyer, FASLA, professor at the University of Virginia, Ian McHarg, author of the seminal book Design with Nature, and the other co-writers of the declaration were responding to not only the environmental crisis, but also the political opportunity introduced through the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

McHarg was influential in the development of first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s thinking on the value of beauty and nature in cities as well as the launch of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty in May, 1965. He later referred to first lady and environmental advocate Lady Bird Johnson “as his fan.”

Meyer argued then that his central role in creating the 1966 declaration may have been as much about environmental stewardship as a call for increased political influence by landscape architects. Just four years later McHarg would join thousands in Philadelphia for the first ever Earth Day event.

1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia
1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia

This political context set the stage for protest and advocacy by many other leading landscape architects over the past five decades. Just one example of this at the LAF summit is Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners. In her declaration, Schwartz said that to respond to climate change, landscape architects must rekindle their political agency by being “online warriors” and rebuild the political wing of the profession that can “put forth a forceful agenda.” The sentiment was echoed by Kelly Shannon, chair of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, International ASLA, who suggested that landscape architects must continue to “orient social movements and lead policy.”

People and parks returned to the city
From the original declaration: “Most urban Americans are being separated from visual and physical contact with nature in any form.”

At a time of rampant urban blight, the 1966 declaration made little reference to designing in cities. Fast forward 50 years and Blaine Merker, ASLA, director at Gehl Architects; James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations; Henry Bava, partner at Agence Ter; Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design; and Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, among others, focused their declarations around celebrating and expanding landscape’s urban reemergence.

Whether it took the form or urban ecological planning, tactical urbanism, green infrastructure, or new parks and plazas, landscape architects have played a critical role in creating humane green public spaces for a new and increasingly urban generation. This effort has helped concentrate development, improve urban sustainability, and preserve the nature surrounding cities. As Corner championed: “if you love nature, live in a city.”

For others, landscape architecture’s return to the city allowed the discipline to grow beyond its 1966 definition as “applied natural sciences.” Christopher Marcincoski, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and partner at PORT Urbanism, argued that landscape architecture has effectively “softened the effect of urbanization,” at least in much of the developed world, but now must better anticipate the political, economic, social, and cultural forces behind urbanization in the areas left behind and the developing world.

For Tim Duggan, ASLA, these places are rich with opportunities. His declaration showed how his work not only over-layed environmental benefits, but also included the “overlaying of opportunities to find a catalytic but attainable scale” for financing and implementing regenerative infrastructure in under-served communities in Kansas City and New Orleans.

 Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation
Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation

Landscape architects called for justice
From the original declaration: “Man is not free of nature’s demands.”

Perhaps one of the most resounding critiques of the 1966 declaration was its now dated emphasis on the conflict between man and nature. LAF president Kona Grey began by contrasting the six white male signees of the 1966 declaration with the 715 diverse attendees of the 2016 LAF summit. Throughout the summit, many speakers made the connection between the increased diversity of our profession and the increasingly diverse communities served by it.

There was Randy Hester, FASLA, a professor at University of California at Berkeley, who has long called for an ecological democracy. David Gouverneur, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who showed his methods for working with informal settlements in the global south. And the work of Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, demonstrated that collaborative design can build both social and physical resilience simultaneously. These and numerous other efforts demonstrated a growing push toward environmental justice, combining landscape architects call to serve both the people and the places that sustain them.

In addition to addressing diversity in her talk entitled “Landscape Humanism,” Gina Ford, a principal at Sasaki, ASLA,  also joined others in realizing that humans are no longer “nature’s antagonist,” but rather are inseparable from nature.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, quoted the great 20th century thinker Buckminster Fuller, reminding attendees that “the opposite of natural is impossible.” Yet our inclusion in nature during what is being called the sixth great extinction, led Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, to ask, “who in the Anthropocene will care for the wild things?”

Learning from the shortcomings of the 1966 declaration, the 2016 declaration must respond to a greater diversity of people, living creatures, and agendas in order for landscape architects to continue to “make our vital contribution.”

Landscape architecture expanded in scale and scope
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect is uniquely rooted in the natural sciences.”

Delivering his declaration via a recorded video from Italy, Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, asserted that landscape architecture has grown to a “huge diversity of practices.” Steinitz charted how landscape architecture began as a multi-scalar practice, but has since ebbed and flowed between small, medium, and regional scales as predicted by the demands of each subsequent decade.

While Steinitz, Kelly Shannon, and Dirk Sijmons, co-founder,  H+N+S Landscape Architects, suggested a need to now revisit the regional scale so favored by McHarg and his colleagues, others assessed landscapes’ successes in prototyping smaller projects capable of global replication. The notion of landscape architecture as an expanded field was seen as both a pro and a con as some worried about being spread too thin, and others embraced the notion of landscape architect as infiltrator and instigator of public agencies and allied professions.

Ecological research was translated into design
From the original declaration: “The demand for better resource planning and design is expanding.”

While the global threat of climate change presents new, less visible challenges, many at the LAF Summit recognized that the 1966 Declaration’s call to action “to improve the American environment” had in many ways been answered. Having written, advocated for, and pioneered ecological landscape design projects, the impact of landscape architects has been transformational, many argued. As Mario Schjetnan, managing director of Grupo de Diseño Urbano, FASLA, noted, “U.S. cities have upgraded air quality, reduced soil and water pollution, and improved open space.”

In his declaration, Kongjian Yu, founder or Turenscape, FASLA, spoke of “50 years of experiments with fire, water, floods, and the landscape as living machine.” Noting new sustainability standards and guidelines such as LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), “the change is amazing,” Yu exclaimed. He joined others in calling for the need to now “replicate and open new scales” through global practice.

ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape
ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape

Historic landscapes became more valuable 
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect practices an historic art.”

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, reminded LAF Summit attendees that 1966 was also the year that the Historic Preservation Act passed, and since 1998, Birnbaum, who is the president, CEO, and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, has made enormous gains in documenting and preserving designed landscapes. For Birnbaum, placing cultural value on our existing landscape heritage is key to bolstering the contemporary contribution of landscape architects.

Complementing this perspective was Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, founder of Heritage Landscapes, who for over 30 years has advocated for “culture-based sustainable development.” Referring to her projects with organizations such as UNESCO and their Historic Urban Landscape Initiative, O’Donnell’s work is exemplary of how the sustaining powers of culture and heritage create “a larger community (for landscape) to participate with.”

Landscape architects emerged as lead collaborators
From the original declaration: “There is no ‘single solution’ but groups of solutions carefully related one to another. There is no one-shot cure, nor single-purpose panacea, but the need for collaborative solutions.”

The 1966 declaration was ahead of its time in its vision of landscape architecture as a collaborative discipline. Many modern declarations reinforced that landscape architects have not only have benefited from these broad collaborations, but also have been increasingly leading teams on the great urban and infrastructural projects of our time.

While James Corner noted the role of his firm in leading large multidisciplinary projects, Kate Orff used her declaration to suggest landscape architecture firms are now the “collaborative glue… convening, organizing, and enabling others” through projects that serve as a “scaffolding for participation.” As LAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, observed, increasingly you “can’t achieve sustainability without considering landscape.”

Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE
Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE

Landscape architects learned how to simplify and communicate complexity
From the original declaration: “Once they understand landscape capabilities—the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of environment, the determinants of change—they can then interpret the landscape correctly.”

Following the original declaration by only three years, Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature paved the way for the subsequent decades of research, scholarship, and communication by landscape architects to the broader public about the complexities of our ever changing built and natural environment.

From Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Granite Garden to Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World, landscape architect’s played a critical role in deciphering environmental complexity. In his declaration, Dirk Sijmons, former chair of landscape architecture at TU Delft, showcased recent visualizations from the 2016 International Architectural Biennale, animating scenarios for offshore wind energy development in the Arctic.

2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak
2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak

For Sijmons, “research and design at a large landscape scale” is less about project implementation, and more about building the cultural influence and political will needed to take on the challenges of the Anthropocene – the age of man.

Landscape architects diversified, to some extent

In her opening, Barbara Deutsch noted that the field of landscape architecture still has a major diversity problem, but it’s far more diverse than it was in 1966, when the profession was mostly white and male. Now, membership in ASLA is 36 percent female and now only 68 percent of landscape architecture graduates are Caucasian. And landscape architecture is a global practice, with tens of thousands of diverse practitioners across the world. Still, there is much more work to be done in the future to attract African Americans and Latinos to the field in the U.S.

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

Review: NACTO’s Transit Street Design Guide

Transit Street Design Guide / Island Press
Transit Street Design Guide / Island Press

The new Transit Street Design Guide, the third in a series by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), is a must-have reference manual for city and transportation planners, engineers, urban designers, and landscape architects involved in the design of streets. These books, which include Urban Bikeway Design Guide and Urban Street Design Guide, formulate a new approach to the design of our public rights-of-way, not only as transportation corridors but as important spaces for city life.

Street and highway design has been dominated by civil engineering technical manuals, namely American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)’s Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets — otherwise known as the “Green Book” — along with the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). These together form the core documents that state, county, and city transportation departments have relied upon as street design criteria for the last half century.

However, in the past few decades — as automobile transportation peaked, personal vehicle miles traveled per day soared, and congestion increased, resulting in wasted time and productivity — officials in some of our larger cities moved towards more productive forms of transportation, using transit street designs not seen in AASHTO or MUTCD. An emerging movement coincided with three city planning trajectories: 1) “smart growth” — compact, mixed use development, centered on high-capacity transit stations in a pattern that favors walking and bicycling; 2) the renaissance of America’s downtowns as desirable places to live, work, recreate, shop, and enjoy culture; and 3), enhanced or new transit to city centers.

Because downtowns use existing developments and rights-of-way, this spawned new ways of thinking about not only moving people in urban streets but also how street space is a part of civic open space. Street space offers a great opportunity: In my home town of Portland, Oregon, streets occupy over 45 percent of the land area downtown.

The stage was then set for a new transportation movement. NACTO was formed in 1996 as a coalition of city departments of transportation for 22 of the nation’s largest cities and now includes 17 affiliate cities. NACTO gained legitimacy in the industry and stimulated a more multi-modal outlook in AASHTO and MUTCD’s guides. In turn, NACTO refers back to AASHTO and MUTCD manuals for more detailed technical criteria.

Transit Street Design Guide is a reference manual so it’s not necessary to read from cover to cover in one sitting, but it’s ordered in a way to easily find the topic you want to explore and go directly to that section. This has been the format of all the books in NACTO series and their free, complementary websites. The book offers advice on choices, how to interpret specific recommended criteria (critical, recommended, and optional, for example), and clear references back to other technical manuals.

In the introduction, NACTO lays down six key principles for innovative thinking. For example, one principle is “growth without congestion,” which calls for “serving more people in less space” and “making transit trips faster on streets with high travel demand.” The other five principles set the stage for creating richer street places, providing better service and mobility for the whole city, ensuring safety, and generating economic benefits from reliable travel choices. NACTO also explains why transit reliability matters, and the components of design and service that create reliability.

Chapters explore transit streets, stations and stops, station and stop elements, transit lanes and transit ways, and intersections. These are all organized with the principles that underlie all street designs and should be kept in mind as a landscape architects and engineers make decisions. These are then followed by a description of the different contexts for design. Clear paragraph headings — such as application, benefits, considerations, critical, recommended, and optional — make it easy to choose a design for further analysis.

These segments typically include one to two-page spreads for each design type featuring outstanding illustrated graphics. Simple line drawings are in birds-eye perspective with color tone and numbered legend symbols. User-friendly illustrations are complemented by photos of the design types built in cities across the country.

An example of the birds-eye illustrations. In this case, paired parallel transitways / NACTO
An example of the birds-eye illustrations. In this case, paired parallel transitways / NACTO

A bonus chapter on transit system strategies peeks into the world of transit system planning and includes sections on systems, ranging from multi-hub (a series of inter-modal transfer stations where passengers change to another line); grid network (great for cities with consistent grid street patterns and distributed destinations); radial network (great for cities with strong downtowns), with benefits and considerations noted. Again, great graphics are used to help a lay-person grasp these concepts.

Example of the excellent graphics. In this case, a menu of different bus stop configurations / NACTO
Example of the excellent graphics. In this case, a menu of different bus stop configurations / NACTO

The last segment — performance measures — is particularly important. For decades, the traffic capacity of streets and intersections was the primary performance measure for street design, and the results of these measurements trumped all other concerns. The book advocates a holistic approach called “Measure the Whole Street” — as in, average person capacity per lane space, safety, public space and social life, health, sustainability, and economic productivity as additional performance measures.

A very graphic way of understanding how person-trip capacity (the number of people moving through a lane space) changes dramatically between your mode choice: auto, bicycle, local bus, express bus and light rail / NACTO
A very graphic way of understanding how person-trip capacity (the number of people moving through a lane space) changes dramatically between your mode choice: auto, bicycle, local bus, express bus and light rail / NACTO

One quibble with the guide: in the double-page birds-eye perspectives of transit street types, the caption lists street width in parentheses. This is typically, but not always, the curb-to-curb dimension. Because overall street width from building face to building face is so critical in total street design, I would have listed both curb-to-curb and building face-to-building face widths so the reader would know at a glance what the sidewalk widths are. You can uncover those missing dimensions in other detailed segments, but it’s important to list total street space.

If you are new to the NACTO series but genuinely interested in 21st century street transportation and street design, get all three books. They are worth the investment. If you’re already a NACTO fan, add this book to your library.

Going forward, street design must increase circulation for all transit modes, improve economic vitality and safety, and result in great placemaking — places that promote community identity, health, and well-being.

Brian McCarter, FASLA, AICP, is principal urban designer at ZGF Architects based in Portland, Oregon. He has 30 years of experience creating urban street designs in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Calgary, Boise, and, notably, the Portland Mall Revitalization, an ASLA 2011 Professional General Design Award of Excellence winner.

The Legacy of Jacques Simon

Image 1 / caption
“Champ Dessiné” mown agricultural field by Jacques Simon / Teresa Gali-Izard

Jacques Simon is a name unfamiliar to most landscape architects in the U.S. However, he influenced a generation of designers in Europe. A French practitioner who studied fine arts in Montreal, then landscape architecture at the School of Versailles, he was also broadly, though informally, educated through his rural upbringing and lifelong personal engagement with wild and agricultural landscapes. Given this education and background, Simon eluded categorization. Working at the edges of the discipline, he blurred boundaries between land art and ecological design, carefully-staged interventions and traditional farming practices, and play and technical experimentation. He added elements of surprise and delight to familiar landscapes, inspired people to take a closer look at their surroundings and see the potential for play and creativity in the everyday.

Though I never had the privilege of meeting Simon, I have learned about his work from Teresa Gali-Izard, International ASLA, former chair of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia (UVA) and principal of Arquitectura Agronomia. In 1992, as a recent university graduate, Gali-Izard took a road trip “pilgrimage” to France to meet the man whose work she had long admired from afar. That meeting with Simon marked the start of a deep friendship that lasted until Simon’s death in September 2015. After three years as a student of Gali-Izard at UVA, I am now beginning to understand how strongly her pedagogy has been shaped by Simon’s ethic and appreciate his influence on the profession I am about to enter.

Most of Simon’s written work has yet to be translated into English. However, his drawings, built work, and recorded interviews offer some insight for those whom French might be a barrier. He was a prolific thinker. His sketches, studies, and notes flood over 60 sketchbooks. His projects ranged in scale, from urban playgrounds to regional-scale parks. He played, wrote, and acted, gathered people together, and appropriated media and tools necessary to carry out his visions. In 1990, the French government awarded him the first Grand Prix du Paysage for his contributions to the development of ideas and concepts in the field of landscape architecture. In 2006, he received the Grand Prix National du Paysage for his design of the Parc de la Deule in Lille, France.

Parc de la Deule, Lille / Teresa Gali-Izard
Parc de la Deule, Lille / Teresa Gali-Izard

I recently came upon a video interview that captures Simon’s spirit, as he leads us through his work at the Parc de la Deule:

Explaining the 400-hectare park that follows a 17 kilometer stretch of the Deule Canal, Simon walks along, pushing aside branches that hang over the path. Kneeling down, he pulls up blades of grass that he uses as drawing tools, illustrating the ideas that shaped the park. A series of perpendicular walkways of vegetation extend through the park, linking the canal and park-land to the surrounding villages, farm fields, and forest. Simon pauses in front of a field with a tunnel of sculpturally-arched willows to explain:

“I like working with the hearth, with mankind and its diversity. This diversity gives us teardrops, commas, curves and the like. They intertwine, double back, twist around. People discover things differently here than in an open field. Everything is linear, rectangular, then suddenly something surprises them. That’s important.”

Simon worked with dynamic processes, forging relationships between plants, soil, and materials that evolve long after their initial construction. He was a choreographer of vegetation, intervening with sensitive, formal edits that considered growth cycles, morphology, seasonality, and cultural use. Community participation was vital to his process of maintaining and caring for designed landscapes. In Parc de la Deule, Simon invited friends and children to stage small theater productions on site, building papier mache gnome puppets who “spoke for the forest.” His projects remind us how imagination and play can free us from cultural constraints and help us to know a site intimately.

Simon passed away in September 2015, but his legacy lives on. Every April, in his playful and hospitable spirit, Gali-Izard invites the landscape architecture department to her home to celebrate his birthday. Students and faculty gather to share a meal and hear her recount stories from her lifelong friendship with him. As we sit cross-legged on the floor, flipping through page after page of his drawings, we can’t help but think of how our own practice and creativity might unfold.

Jacques Simon journals / Teresa Gali-Izard
Jacques Simon’s sketch books / Teresa Gali-Izard
Jacques Simon journal / Teresa Gali-Izard
People and trees, Simon’s sketch book / Teresa Gali-Izard

Though Simon has passed on, we can only hope that all of us will remember to play a little more, touch and experience the materials we are charged to work with, and not feel too tied to convention as we leave academia and enter the world of practice.

This guest post is by Amanda Silvana Coen, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Virginia.

The Case for Precision in Landscape Architecture

Image1_CaracasPark
Renderings of Concurso La Carlota competition entry / Luis Callejas

According to Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), the question of whether to pursue a more regimented, process-based approach or use a more open-ended design model has occupied the field of landscape architecture for the past three decades. In a lecture at GSD, Berrizbeitia said landscape architects must contend with a range of dynamic forces in every landscape — from changing seasons, hydrologic cycles, and plant life-cycles, to more anthropogenic processes, such as climate change, economic volatility, and rapid urbanization. “One of the challenges with process is it’s difficult to calibrate. But with the fully open, come both good and bad. How do we design with a more precise notion of openness?”

In the face of destructive processes, such as rising sea levels or increasing socio-economic inequality, Berrizbeitia sees a problem with completely open-ended design interventions that indiscriminately let processes unfold, unobstructed and uncontested. She proposed precision as the primary approach that will enable designers to better contend with existing processes and create a better future.

Berrizbeitia noted that the word precision is most commonly associated with computation, architecture, and certain art forms, but rarely landscape architecture. She gave examples of a number of projects that use precision in an exemplary way.

One example is a competition proposal by Berrizbeitia and colleagues for a park: Concurso La Carlota in Caracas, Venezuela (see image above). The park was to be located in a former air force base, which had for years acted like a void in the city, prohibiting access to the everyday citizens of Caracas. Thus, the design became all about access, literally, by bringing people to an area that was once inaccessible, and, metaphorically, by providing “access to the political processes of a decaying democracy.”

A single, precise topographical gesture in the form of a massive earthwork was designed to serve various purposes. First, it would help reverse the hydrological processes that cause flooding in the area. Next, the earthwork would selectively keep an 8-lane highway out of view while also bringing in pedestrians from all the surrounding communities. The monumental earthwork would also create an elevated promenade with views of surrounding valley, creating a new view that would have been impossible before.

Another model of precision is a park in Santiago Chile called Quinta Normal, designed by Teodoro Fernandez and Danilo Martic, a renovation of a garden originally used for acclimatization of European plant species to Chile. The designers were tasked with creating public space for a densely-populated and impoverished neighborhood while preserving the beautiful old trees. The landscape architects resolved this by laminating the ground with a series of wood and stone surfaces, none exceeding one foot in height. These precisely-designed surfaces create space for new and unprecedented forms of public interactions in this under-served neighborhood. They allow public access to an important historical and cultural resource — the existing trees — while simultaneously protecting them from harm.

Children frolic in the fountain at Quinta Normal in Santiago / buenatela.wordpress.com
Children frolic in the fountain at Quinta Normal in Santiago / buenatela.wordpress.com

The lecture ended with a response by Michel Desvigne, a French landscape architect, who, through his three-decade-long career, exemplifies for Berrizbeitia a practitioner able to achieve a coherent ecological, social, and aesthetic vision through the implementation of precise interventions. Desvigne called Berrizbeitia’s lecture “a key moment” for landscape architecture. The scale of Devigne’s projects are so grand that they require new institutional frameworks between clients and designers. For example, one of Desvigne’s current projects, a master plan of Bordeaux, has a projected completion date of 2034. Desvigne emphasized that without precision, projects of this scale wouldn’t be possible.

Right Bank of Bordeaux succession diagrams / Scanned from Intermediate Natures: The Landscapes of Michel Desvigne
Right Bank of Bordeaux succession diagrams / Scanned from Intermediate Natures: The Landscapes of Michel Desvigne

“The precisely-designed landscape negotiates. Its forms reveal rather than obscure; its high-definition communicates, draws in, describes, and enables.” Berrizbeitia’s lecture was a heartening reminder that landscape architects have the power to give form to processes in the face of constantly-shifting conditions. With precision, designers can create landscapes that result in positive and lasting social and environmental change.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

What’s Next: Career Paths for Emerging Landscape Architects

Work and Days Symposium Participants / Katie Black and Colin Curley
Work and Days Symposium Participants / Katie Black and Colin Curley

This time of year design students everywhere are asking themselves, “What’s next?” Whether weighing summer options or searching for a job post-graduation, the closing of the spring semester is  a critical moment filled with the excitement and apprehension of choosing the right path. While students can draw on many traditional sources for advice, a recent symposium at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design sought to offer a deeper forum, not just about careers, but rather on “what the role of the designer is, can, and should be in the twenty-first century.”

The Work & Days symposium mined the broader field of landscape architecture, assembling 17 panelists who represent the “realistic breadth of jobs available to emerging landscape designers.” Career paths range from start-ups to large firms, publishing, conservation, interdisciplinary work, industrial and structural engineering, socially-oriented practice, and academia. The idea for the event originated with master’s of landscape architecture students Katie Black and Colin Curley. The duo “recognized the increasing agency and expansion of landscape and its allied professions,” and yet, a lack of honest discussion about the highs and lows of these varying career paths.

Although each 10-minute presentation had its own distinct story, many themes resonated across speakers. One common theme throughout the day was the pros and cons of the straight versus the meandering path. Ellen Nieses, an adjunct landscape architecture professor at PennDesign, kicked off the presentations listing the 30-plus jobs she had held before coming to landscape architecture. As an academic and practitioner, Nieses drew on her diverse experiences outside of the world of landscape “to meet people designers don’t usually meet and go places designers don’t always go,” expanding the reach of the profession as she seeks to “see big stuff happen.” However, she admits her approach has a “fruition problem,” in that big paradigm-shifting projects are slow, hard to complete, and thus result in little built work.

With 16 years of practice at Olin, Richard Roark, ASLA, offered students a different but complementary perspective, showing how a landscape architect can evolve at one firm. His more linear career in landscape architecture had allowed room for him to grow from a young student protester to a partner at Olin leading community-based projects such as the Philadelphia Rail Park and Detroit’s Eastern Market. Roark sees these projects as “political dialogue,” requiring “an act of collaborative intelligence.”

For careers outside of academia and private practice, many speakers emphasized the valuable managerial skills and inquisitive instincts learned through design education. Nette Compton stressed the importance of effective “design translation” in her ascension to the position of director of green infrastructure at the New York City parks department and her current role as the senior director of ParkCentral and city park development at The Trust for Public Land.

Regardless of their career choices, many presenters acknowledged and even celebrated the inevitable role of serendipity. For Aaron Kelley, Assoc. ASLA, an associate at James Corner Field Operations, this meant landing his first design job while in line for a coffee, but for others, this meant bouncing back from unexpected professional and personal challenges. Olin CEO Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, spoke candidly about these “bumps” in her own life, adding that “the disorienting dilemma is an important moment — use it wisely.”

While the symposium highlighted the range of possible professional pathways for students to consider, it also revealed that the question of “what next” is not just reserved students, but is an ongoing question for the discipline of landscape architecture.

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

Material Provocations

Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Aqueduct, New York/Source: Ken Smith Workshop
Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop

Landscape architect Ken Smith, FASLA, founder of Ken Smith Workshop, Andrea Cochran, FASLA, founder of Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, and James Lord, ASLA, principal of Surface Design, can provoke reactions with their creative use of materials. While these landscape architects couldn’t be more different, what unites them is a passion for how materials can create  memorable experiences. At a recent symposium at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), each practitioner revealed how they do it.

Smith draws much of his creative inspiration from fashion. “I go to clothing stores and look at clothes like people go to art museums. But when you go to stores, you can touch the clothes, inspect the seams, see how things are put together.”

He presented his work on Croton water treatment plant, a golf driving range located over a subterranean 9-story water treatment facility in the Bronx, NYC. He admitted it was challenging to control the expression of a concept through the use of materials in a project so large and with so many constituents, but found clever ways to push the boundaries. When the fire department came in late in the design process and required a fire lane, Smith could have seen this as an annoyance.

Instead, he turned this moment into an opportunity to show an indeterminate edge, expressing one of the conceptual threads of the project by using simple unit pavers in an unusual way. “Usually, good craft with a unit paver is to have an edge restraint and cut the units because good craft is about expressing the form. But I adopted bad craft, and in this case, bad craft is good design.”

Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop
Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop

Cochran said she came to landscape architecture though an interest in art, but didn’t feel at home in the profession until she began to work at a design build firm. “Suddenly, it brought me back to materials — touching and feeling things and thinking more like an artist. My work really changed once I started to think from the building blocks to the bigger scale, rather than designing these huge things and trying to figure out how they would be composed.”

When seeing a site for the first time, she asks herself “how does it want to feel?” She is precise in the manipulation of color and texture to create perceptions. One of her projects is a residential project on a steep slope in San Francisco, in which a grade change of 18 feet had to be resolved from the entrance, to the doorway of the residence.

Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, Perry Residence, San Francisco/Source: Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture
ASLA 2015 Perry Residence, San Francisco/ Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

Cochran knew she wanted to make this a visceral, almost scary experience. She created cantilevered walkways out over the edge of the cliff, giving the illusion of falling off the edge. This effect was heightened by the addition of non-reflective glass at the end of the walkway, and a floor that is a porous grate. “Some people won’t walk out on it, it’s too scary. I love the fact that we have been able to elicit a strong emotion with use of material.”

Lord first completes a rigorous process of site analysis, which involves researching the history, culture, and even the folklore of the place, before he begins designing. What he learns informs the choice of materials.

He presented the IBM Plaza in Honolulu, which won an ASLA professional design honor award in 2015. In Hawaii, places on a map aren’t traditionally spoken of in terms of north, south, east, west, but in terms of that place’s relationship to the mauka (mountains) and the makai (ocean). There, what’s important is one’s location in relation to the Pacific Ocean.

With a deeper understanding of Hawaiian culture, Lord sought to bring the sensation of the ocean to the site, using materials like glass, metal, and water to evoke the horizontal, reflective, and blue nature of the surrounding Pacific. “Descendant stories were key. By listening, we were able to define the materials that makes a place authentic.”

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. IBM Plaza, Honolulu bt SURFACE DESIGN, / Marion Brenner
ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. IBM Plaza, Honolulu, SURFACE DESIGN / Marion Brenner

These three landscape architects express their provocative ideas about materials through the manipulation of light, color, and texture, no matter how large or small the site.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

The Future of Suburbia

Rendering of Possible Future Suburbs/Source: Center for Advanced Urbanism, MIT
Rendering of Possible Future Suburbs / Center for Advanced Urbanism, MIT

Almost 70 percent of Americans live in a suburban environment, according to Alan Berger, professor of landscape architecture and co-director of the Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) at MIT, who kicked-off a recent conference there on the Future of Suburbia. United Nations estimates show about 1 in 8 on Earth now live in a dense mega-city, a city with more than 10 million people, which means that 7 out of 8 live in another kind of environment, likely suburban. For Berger, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the majority of people don’t live in dense urban areas and most likely won’t far into the future. Trends suggest cities are increasingly becoming the place only for the “super-rich and very poor.” The two-day conference at MIT, part of a multi-year research project at the CAU, aimed to generate some new ideas about suburbia. If suburbs are growing, what planning and design solutions can make them more just, sustainable, and livable? Can “heterogeneous, productive, autonomous, and experimental” suburbs provide the answer?

Heterogeneous: We often assume that the suburbs are demographically homogenous. A white, upper-middle class nuclear family comes to mind as the archetypal suburb-dweller. This notion is increasingly being challenged by the reality: suburbs are becoming more diverse. At the conference, Jed Kolko, an economist and statistical analyst, dismantled the assumptions we may have, showing how the poor and seniors are becoming more suburban. And Ali Modarres, director of urban studies at the University of Washington, used the suburbs of Seattle and Los Angeles as case studies to show that suburbs are becoming more racially-diverse as well as home to a growing number of people born outside of the United States.

Productive: “The purpose of this panel is to get beyond the typical planning view of vegetation as ‘green blobs,’ and to look at how the ecological systems actually function in relationship to socioeconomic systems, which is what productivity is all about,” said Peter Del Tredici, urban ecologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Because of their inherent horizontal nature, suburbs enable a more productive and “metabolic” use of the landscape, whether for growing food, carbon sequestration, or waste and floodwater absorption, even to the point where they could support urban cores.

Professor Susannah Hagan, professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, said looking to the past for models of productive suburbs could be a useful exercise for today’s planners and landscape architects. “Ornamental landscapes and productive landscapes have not always been mutually exclusive,” she said. The 18th century English landscape was a quintessential metabolic landscape.

Next was professor Joan Nassauer, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture, University of Michigan, who talked about greening sprawl, lawn culture, and carbon storage in the suburban landscape. While the suburbs are rife with mowed turf lawns, they under-perform ecologically. “What we should be asking from these spaces is more ecosystem services.” Allowing for the growth of more diverse and mature vegetation will sequester more carbon, but this requires a major shift in cultural preferences.

And Mitchell Joachim, founding co-president at Terreform ONE, showed his speculative ecological-design prototypes, such as his modular cricket farm, so that the protein-rich crickets can be harvested as food.

Prototype of Urban Farm Pod, by Terreform ONE/Source: Inhabitat
Cricket farm / Terreform ONE

Autonomous: This panel, moderated by Joseph Coughlin, founder of the Institute of Technology AgeLab at MIT, addressed autonomous mobility. “Transportation reflects and reinforces how we chose to live with each other. How close do you want to live to your neighbor? What activities, and in what density and intensity, do you want to do?” Each panelist looked at how to retrofit our current suburban fabric to enable more autonomous mobility.

Dr. Knut Saue, Hyperloop Tech, advocated for his public transportation project called the Hyperloop, the brainchild of Elon Musk of Tesla, which he sees as the “backbone of the future transportation,” transporting not only people, but also goods at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour in a system of tubes.

Rendering of Hyperloop Pod in Dock / Source:Hyperloop Tech
Rendering of Hyperloop Pod in Dock / Hyperloop Tech

Eran Ben-Joseph, head of urban studies and planning at MIT, said personal transportation will continue to be a major force in shaping the suburban landscape. “Did the car destroy the environment, or was it the way we designed for it?” Widespread use of autonomous vehicles (or driverless cars) could change the way we design and plan the suburbs. For example, parking could be made more spatially-efficient, which means impervious surfaces could be greatly reduced.

And Nick Roy, MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, provided yet another example of autonomous mobility: transportation of goods by drone. The drone industry, he said, aims to “take the friction out of transportation, so that anyone can get anything at anytime and anywhere.” Roy didn’t foresee drone-filled skies in the near future, as he outlined the many regulatory, economic, infrastructural and safety obstacles standing in the way of this reality.

Experimental: Allison Arieff, SPUR, led a discussion among panelists in the final series of presentations, which presented suburbia as the future site of innovative and experimental land-use, in a state of permanent flexibility, changing in response to shifting environmental or economic conditions.

Robert Geolas, Research Triangle Foundation, presented an alternative model of suburban living and working: the suburban research park. The Research Triangle Park was initiated in the 1950s, on a piece of land in North Carolina that was “all pine trees and possums.” Fast forward six decades and it’s the largest research park in the country, with at least 200 companies representing sectors such as biotech, green technology, and finance.

Paul Feiler, CITE Development, thinks “there are many more exits than there are entrances for innovators.” He views government regulations as obstacles preventing innovations from entering the market. To bypass these obstacles, he and his colleagues have created CITE, a privately funded “ghost town” in the middle of the desert in New Mexico, a self-sustaining testing evaluation and certification facility modeled after a typical American town of 35,000 people, except it will be uninhabited. The above-ground town exists only as a test site; below ground are laboratories and facilities where innovation occurs.

Rendering of CITE in New Mexico / CNN
Rendering of CITE in New Mexico / CNN

And David Neustein, Other Architects, presented experimental ideas for suburbia in Australia, the most suburbanized country in the world, with the largest houses on earth, located on lots half the size of the average U.S. suburban lot. He presented ideas of how to retrofit existing Australian suburban architecture to make homes more socially and environmentally sustainable, allowing residents to downsize without having to relocate.

An aura of cautious optimism at the conference kept energy levels high. Conversations with attendees revealed relief that discussions about the planning and design of suburbia can be speculative and inventive.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.