Pandemic-era Street Spaces: Parklets, Patios, and the Future of the Public Realm

Rebar’s “walket” a prototype parklet system deployed in San Francisco’s Mission district in 2009. / Rebar

By John Bela, ASLA

On a clear fall day in 2005, a group of friends and collaborators from the art collective Rebar commandeered an 8-foot-wide by 20-foot-long metered parking space in downtown San Francisco. This two-hour guerilla art installation evolved into Park(ing) Day, a global public art and design activism event that has been celebrated every year since. In 2009, Rebar and other design studios were approached by the City of San Francisco to prototype a more permanent version of Park(ing) Day. In response, we created one of the world’s first parklets in San Francisco (we called our version walklet), and through the diligent efforts of Andres Power in the Mayor’s Office and City Planning, San Francisco’s pioneering parklet program was born.

By early 2020, San Francisco had created 70 parklets in every corner of the city, and the city’s parklet program, now part of Groundplay SF, had become a model for cities around the world.

And then came the pandemic.

After the initial period of lockdown restriction, data emerged that anything we could be doing outdoors, we should be doing outdoors. Communities around the country then began to look to outdoor spaces and the public right-of-way to accommodate outdoor dining, pick-up and drop-off, exercise, socialization, and play. Outdoor dining programs like the City of San Francisco’s Shared Spaces and the City of Oakland’s Slow Streets were launched across the country.

The proliferation of outdoor dining spaces was mind-boggling. In San Francisco alone, there are more than 2,000 outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets — parklets are by definition public spaces). All over the country, almost overnight, parking spaces and streets have been transformed into places for people. While many of these spaces have succeeded in their original intended purpose of supporting local businesses and accommodating public health guidelines regarding social distancing, it may now be that they have outlived their useful lives. While many cities are making the move to make the outdoor dining spaces permanent, due the rapid nature of their creation, only a handful of these spaces live up to the original ideals of the parklet program to contribute something meaningful to the public realm.

A few of the over 2,000 shared spaces outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets) on Valencia Street in San Francisco. / John Bela

Communities around the country are grappling with the future of these temporary outdoor spaces. To tackle this question, I have been in conversation with peers in Oakland, Seattle, Vancouver and other cities. My original thinking was that by default — because these spaces occupy precious curbside public right-of-way — the best outcome is that they all become parklets — that is public space, accessible during the city’s standard public space operating hours.

Parklets, by definition, are publicly accessible and open to all. They work best when their design cues create an invitation for many types of uses — from eating takeout from the adjacent restaurant or cafe, to bike parking, or simply taking a pause on a busy commercial street for a chat with friends. In fact, during the pandemic, when many of our more traditional venues of social infrastructure like schools and libraries have been closed, these smaller spaces have become that much more critical for supporting the everyday casual encounters that are the basis of social cohesion and community building.

But what I’ve learned in the course of my conversations with peers from across the country has resulted in an evolution of my previous thinking, and here’s why.

Lessons from the “Emerald City”

Inspired by San Francisco’s parklet program, businesses in Seattle became interested in building parklets and approached the city in 2011. Today, Seattle has both a parklet program and a streatery program. Seattle’s parklets are much like those in San Francisco where a local sponsor designs, builds, and maintains the space, and the city government issues the permit and ensures adherence to design standards. The streatery model is unique in that they provide commercial cafe seating during business hours as well as public access after business hours.

A Seattle Streatery, a hybrid public/private space. / SDOT

That’s right, it’s a hybrid public space. But how well does this work in practice? Do people use the streateries as public parklets after business hours? Has the city run into any issues regarding liability, or challenges with illicit behavior happening in the streateries when there is no one around to keep their “eyes on the street”?

According to my peers in Seattle, following an extensive community survey, they have concluded the following: Streateries perform well from an economic development perspective and have fulfilled a need in the city for outdoor dining, adding vibrancy to Seattle’s streets. They do provide a public benefit in terms of creating vibrant streets bustling with activity. (The city enforces strict design guidelines for streateries such as a 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures that must be 50 percent transparent.) On the downside, streateries have not been perceived by the public as public space. The public amenities and invitation for use after business hours have been limited at best.

Seattle has some important lessons to share. First, private outdoor dining patios, like streateries, can contribute to economic development, social infrastructure, and create the public benefit of vibrant, safer streets when they adhere to basic good design principles. Second, the hybrid private / public space model sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s hard for an average member of the public to navigate unless there are strong design cues in either direction. In other words, don’t expect your thriving commercial district’s outdoor dining spaces to fulfill a public space need such as public gathering spaces or non-commercial community seating.

Van-city Speaks

But what can we learn from the Queen of the Northwest? As a social democracy, everything is better managed and more beautiful in Vancouver, Canada, so it’s no surprise that this city is leading the way for all of us regarding the future of outdoor public and private spaces. Vancouver’s parklets are very different from San Francisco’s or Seattle’s in that they are designed, funded and built by the city. This has been good for adherence to design standards and ensuring high quality and beautiful parklets. The downside is that due to limited city funding and staff capacity, there were only a handful of parklets created each year.

A Vancouver parklet, a dedicated community serving public space. / City of Vancouver

In response to a growing demand from restaurants and cafes, Vancouver also created a curbside patio program for commercial outdoor dining. Prior to the pandemic, six patios had been approved by the city. When the pandemic hit, the city created a temporary expedited patio permit process. Since June 1, 2020, the city has approved over 400 temporary patios on private and city property.

A typical Vancouver patio designed for commercial outdoor dining. / Google Streetview

Following the initial success of the parklet program, but acknowledging the inherent obstacles of city-led parklets, the city stopped accepting new conventional parklet applications and instead focused their energy on a pop-up plaza program in partnership with local business districts, which has resulted in the creation of 20 nicely-designed plazas with broad public support. Vancouver found that for about the same amount of time and money as a parklet, they could create much more generous and useful pop-up plaza spaces. The second initiative is a community focused parklet program, created in partnership with social service organizations in underserved neighborhoods like the Downtown Eastside. These parklets are designed and built by the city and programmed and managed with a dedicated community partner to offer such programs as health clinics and safe injection sites.

A well-designed and maintained social service parklet in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. / City of Vancouver, BC.

What this means is that as a citizen of Vancouver navigating the city’s streets you have lots of choices. You can choose to pay for seating and experience the buzz and vibrancy of the commercial outdoor dining happening in one of the city’s 400 patios, or you can walk a bit further down the street and hang out at the free public seating in a city-sponsored pop-up plaza or a parklet.

One of the 20 city-led pop-up plazas that provide public seating, shade, bike parking, and public programs. / City of Vancouver.

From my point of view, this is the right balance of public and private use of the curb lane in the public right-of-way. We all want thriving, economically-vibrant commercial districts AND we want meaningful investment in high-quality and well-maintained public spaces in our neighborhoods. The role of the Vancouver municipality has been to be the referee — to ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district there are both public and private seating options.

The Upshot

So while my original view was that outdoor dining should be redesigned and converted to public parklets, I now see the powerful and important role that well-designed patios can play in adding to the social and economic vibrancy of our streets. What I don’t support is trying to force these tiny curb lane spaces to be all things for all people. Attempting to saddle commercial patios with public seating or public-use requirements both dilutes their ability to serve their primary commercial purpose and sends confusing signals to the public.

Nor do I support continuing to allow the free-for-all use of the curb lane that has occurred during the pandemic and which has resulted in the proliferation of low-quality, poorly designed, and potentially dangerous commercial outdoor dining platforms. Many of these spaces feel opaque and claustrophobic, blocking visual access to ground floor retail and obstructing city sidewalks.

Businesses who want to use curb lane space for commercial outdoor dining must recognize the immediate benefit of the use of the public right-of-way for their businesses and compensate cities for the use of the space. By pricing the curb appropriately, cities can generate revenue to support and invest in public realm improvements and city staff time to manage their outdoor space programs. Also, patios must adhere to basic good design principles like 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures; 50 percent transparent walls; and a direct, accessible connection to the adjacent sidewalk in order to generate the public benefit of vibrant, lively streets.

This outdoor dining platform is porous, accessible, light filled, and designed with simple and durable materials by designer Léa Saito for the Bon Nene Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district / John Bela

With the revenue generated from commercial outdoor dining patio permit fees, cities can then invest in the parklets and pop-up plazas that can continue to fulfill a crucial role for everyday, informal social encounters that form the basis of social bonding and community cohesion. Parklets and pop-up plazas work well when there is a dedicated sponsor or steward — like a community organization, or an adjacent sponsor which has an established take-out business model like an ice cream shop or cafe — who is in charge of daily maintenance and programming of the space. Public space is a verb, not a static object. Public spaces must be cultivated and maintained to flourish and grow so that they are best able to contribute meaningfully to a city’s social infrastructure and a diverse, inclusive, resilient public realm.

Landscape architects and urban designers have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of the use of outdoor spaces. As upholders of design quality, we can ensure that the next generation of commercial outdoor dining patios are well-designed and contribute to a high-quality and vibrant public realm.

As stewards of public space and the public realm, we can ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district, there are beautifully-designed public spaces, with generous public seating and lively programming, to create invitations to all city residents to socialize and spend time together.

This beautiful outdoor dining platform was designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / John Bela
John Bela, ASLA, sitting in the outdoor dining platform designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / Superworks

John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.

Getting Real About Sea Level Rise: Landscape Architecture, Policy, and Finance

A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy / Island Press

By Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA

Over the next hundred years, average global sea levels are expected to rise faster than they have in the last 8,000 years. By 2050, storm surges and high tides could flood homes, subways, and roads that are currently one or two feet higher in elevation than the homes, subways, and roads that have already flooded over the last twenty years in New Orleans, New York, Zhengzhou, and Boston. Hundreds of millions of people living in coastal cities and rural areas will be affected, even if communities stop burning fossil fuels completely today.

Adaptation to climate change is essential. But do landscape architects and planners understand the most important impacts of higher seas, assuming the goal is to design for adaptation without accidentally blowing it? And how will communities prioritize and achieve the social goals of adaptation in a systematically unequal society? Who will pay, who will benefit, and how can communities take the first steps? As this figure based on innovative planning in the UK reveals, there’s a long lead time before coastal communities can live in safety, so those first steps need to happen now.

ONE Architecture and Urbanism

Carolyn Kousky, Billy Fleming, ASLA, and Alan M. Berger, the editors of the new book A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics and Policy, set out to answer these questions. In their introductory essay, they make the claim that landscape architects and planners already have most of the tools needed to help communities adapt. The challenge, in their view, is the lack of action. They close the last paragraph of their introduction with the (overly?) triumphant claim that if we start now, “the future is ours.” Ouch. Remind me who “we” are? And is it a good thing for anyone to claim possession of the future, which will have its own claims? I realize this introductory chapter is a pitch, not a research paper, and the chapters themselves are far more self-reflective. But I want to start by putting this review in context, simply because the book is so important.

As a scholar and designer in the field of landscape architecture, I ask myself every day whether design professionals have the synthetic understanding needed to advise urban decision makers to act. For example, while the authors in this anthology consider flooding driven by saltwater, rainwater, and rivers overflowing their channels, not a single essay grapples with the risk that shallow coastal groundwater will rise through the soil and/or move laterally into river channels in response to rising seawater. Recent research indicates that groundwater-driven flooding may cause more water-related failures of urban infrastructure and buildings than seawater and that it will add to river and rainwater flooding. If landscape architects and planners haven’t considered the compounded physical and ecological risks created by rising coastal groundwater, it’s premature for us to give professional advice on adaptation.

To be “professional,” our advice has to go beyond selling a proposal. That advice has to reflect the shared knowledge of a field, or it won’t meet the standard of professionalism; at that point, we might as well be selling used cars. If we recommend spending billions of dollars to use levees to keep the sea out, our shared knowledge tells us that we will also need to pump the rainwater and groundwater out from behind the levees and design the protected district to be resilient to catastrophic failures of coastal structures. Levees and movable gates won’t keep coastal land from flooding by themselves, especially where the rock or sand under a city is very permeable.

The upshot is that the mantra of “sponge cities” or “sponge wetlands” won’t work in high groundwater conditions, because the “sponge” will already be full of groundwater. The really bad news is that changes in the elevation or flow direction of coastal groundwater could end up sending us to a dystopian ‘80’s theme party. New flows of groundwater can mobilize soil pollution that was capped in the 1980’s or 1990’s and carry it under buildings where people will be exposed to old pollution in new ways. Most cities don’t even have maps of their shallow water table. Rising groundwater will corrode and shift building foundations, fill old sewer pipes and basements, corrode electrical conduits, and make extreme shaking more likely in an earthquake. Groundwater management must be part of any viable climate adaptation strategy.

The ambition of the editors to consider the trifecta of hurdles in funding, policy, and design is what makes this book eminently worth reading. Although no one confronts coastal groundwater impacts, the authors in this book provide a robust set of useful ideas, many of which have been tested in practice.

On the design side, Matthijs Bouw, associate professor of practice at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, presents useful examples from his professional design experience in New York and Boston clearly and intelligently.

ONE Architecture and Urbanism

It was (and is) hard for a European firm to encounter and adjust to the state of American infrastructure. Adaptation is made more difficult by the fact that American cities coast on bridge and pipe investments made 100+ years ago and have cultivated a strategy of neglect since then. Bouw’s description of a more abstract ideas competition in San Francisco is less effective than his other examples, but together his experiences allow him to sincerely observe that adaptation with equity is in doubt in the U.S., where we continue to live under the long shadow of systemic racism and growing economic inequality.

Karen M’Closkey and Keith VanDerSys, co-founders of PEG office of landscape architecture, use their experience in the same California ideas competition as the basis for an argument that adaptation will also be a housing problem, as lower-income renters will need new options. They do an excellent job of bringing in the bigger national picture, suggesting policy avenues and making it clear that the gravity and scale of the housing problem is impossible to solve with design tools alone. All of these design chapters are well-referenced and thoughtfully written.

Susannah Drake, FASLA, founder of DLANDStudio, and Rafi Segal, associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT, describe their proposals for coastal New Jersey and Long Island and Jamaica Bay, New York, more in the style of a manifesto or a competition submission. They have an interesting core of ideas and intriguing claims, but without a critical frame, deeper references, or details, the chapter reads more as a point of departure than a fully-reasoned landscape architecture strategy. For example, their image of dense housing inserted at the edge of a marsh reveals the fundamental conflict between human housing needs and the needs of coastal ecosystems.

Rafi Segal & DLANDstudio

There is no question that putting housing in that location would degrade the quality of the habitat for the egret shown in the image. As we get real about climate, we also need to face the fact that real tradeoffs result from developing coastal ecosystems. This proposal shows an opportunity for landscape architecture to lead adaptation through an ambitious use of land form as an armature for adaptation, instead of concrete and steel walls.

The same site, Jamaica Bay, is also the subject of a proposal in another chapter led by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, professor and director of graduate landscape architecture program at the Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York, which is also provocative but isn’t presented with enough detail to understand how the ecosystems of the Bay would not suffer from introducing new tide gates or how higher groundwater would be managed at the edge of the Bay. As in the Segal and Drake proposal, some separation (physical, temporal or behavioral) would be needed between marshes and lagoons that are managed for housing or recreation and marshes and lagoons that are intended to support diverse ecosystems. It’s a complex landscape, so perhaps this is considered but not described.

On the planning and finance side, several chapters deserve particularly careful reading. Joyce Coffee, founder of Climate Resilient Consulting, and Sarah Dobie, a PhD student at the Taubman College at the University of Michigan, describe strategies at the municipal scale, contrasting the retreat by attrition that is occurring in a small town in Louisiana with Miami Beach’s efforts to raise its streets to adapt in place. Their frank and clear presentation stresses the glaring differences between a community whose tax base and land area are shrinking and a city where a growing population and continued investment is expanding its capacity to adapt in place. It’s not as clear that they have translated the cases into recommendations, which raises the question of whether we know how to prioritize the goals of adaptation. What outcomes are acceptable and to whom?

Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist at Sea Grant Florida, examines the genuinely frightening prospect that abandoned coastal properties will cause pollution hazards and concludes that current legal tools are insufficient to prevent this dystopian outcome. Carlos Martin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, makes a spirited case for public funding for adaptation as public works, and Allison Lassiter, an assistant professor at the Weitzman School of Design at Penn, describes the risks of sea level rise for urban drinking water in Philadelphia, which draws its water from the tidal Delaware River, along with New York. Fadi Masoud, assistant professor and director of the Centre for Landscape Research at the University of Toronto, and David Vega-Barachowitz, director of urban Design at WXY architecture + urban design, take a speculative approach to zoning, describing environmental overlay zones as a strategy for implementing incremental change and making it clear that designers should understand the history and legal context of zoning before altering it.

The real stand-out chapter in this section is by Shannon Cunniff, scientific advisor at Stone Living Lab, and her co-authors. They present environmental impact bonds as a new financing tool that has already been used in Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Atlanta, and considered in many others. To the extent that cities continue to rely on private capital to pay for adaptation, or simply to accelerate innovative pilot projects, impact bonds are a very useful strategy. Taking this one chapter seriously could make the difference between kick starting adaptation or failing by delay.

Reprinted with permission of Quantified Ventures

Overall, the book has a strong emphasis on conditions and strategies in the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This is a limitation for translating some of the design ideas to the west coast, because different regions have different problems (earthquakes vs. hurricanes, karst geology vs. granite, etc.). The book also doesn’t include innovations from design or financing that have been adopted in California or the Pacific Northwest, outside of the rather abstract recent ideas competition in the San Francisco Bay area. But it’s strong on arguments for the East coast and Gulf.

The editors have taken a light-handed approach. Each chapter is encountered on its own without a broader synthesis or set of recommendations at the scale of a section or the book, leaving the reader challenged to identify gaps and draw conclusions by themselves. For example, in spite of the editors’ hopes, it’s not clear that any of the authors have a strategy for increasing social equity in U.S. cities while adapting to flooding. In that sense, some of the limits in this anthology reflect the genuine boundaries of what has been tried and even proposed. To achieve greater equity, several of the authors seem to conclude that we will need more radical strategies.

Everyone should read this book to see how the field of landscape architecture might help cities adapt to a changing climate, particularly with new federally-funded infrastructure investments. Each chapter of this book reaches beyond the conventional limits of our professional knowledge, by degrees or by leaps. But the most important bar this anthology has set for other books about adaptation is to place questions about funding and policy side-by-side with design proposals. For setting that bar higher, we should all thank the editors. Every future book on this topic should accept that challenge and rise to it. Without progressive new policies that can direct the sources and uses of funds for adaptation, even the best designs for adaptation will only reinforce the unequal status quo.

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, is the director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development and associate professor of landscape architecture & environmental planning and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley College of Environmental Design. She is writing a book about adaptation to sea level rise.

A Guide to Drones for Landscape Architects

Drone Technology in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction / Wiley

By Chris S. Sherwin, ASLA

The rise of consumer-friendly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have enabled landscape architecture firms to take advantage of new technologies and digital processing that have previously been out of reach. The growing availability of drones for designers makes the new book Drone Technology in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction by two landscape architects — Daniel Tal, FASLA, and Jon Altschuld, ASLA — a timely addition to any firm’s library.

The book enables a landscape architecture firm with little drone experience to understand step by how to work a drone and the opportunities and obstacles with owning and operating one. Tal and Altschuld have transformed a complex and obscure subject into accessible content. The book is meant to be read in a sequential manner: each chapter builds upon the other and offers resources for further study.

Tal and Altschuld begin the book by explaining the rapid transformation of UAVs from a military tool to hobby radio-controlled aircraft. Consumer-level drones enable design professionals and clients to better understand the environment from the bird’s eye view. Drones offer unlimited potential for imagery and photogrammetry within a 3D modeling environment and are an important tool for communicating how a proposed design can impact sites.

The risks and shortfalls of drone technology are outlined through an exploration of the difference between good looking data and good data. With new low-cost drones, site scanning often involves just pressing a couple of buttons on an app and setting the site parameters. A user can produce a very detailed and good looking data set without understanding how these technologies function. This can be a hindrance to producing good data.

A new drone user needs to understand that producing a precise and correct data set involves a deeper understanding of drone technology, surveying, and photogrammetry processing. An accurate model requires knowledge of how to set ground control points, provide specific camera angles in relation to the site being surveyed, and set a steady and continuous ground sampling distance from the site as the drone surveys the property. Fortunately, all of these areas are thoroughly covered by the authors.

Stunning drone images from past projects make for great marketing materials on future projects. / Daniel Tal

The book further explores how to effectively use drone data visualization as a project life-cycle tool. Chapters explain the costs necessary for staff training, examinations, and certifications; purchasing an appropriate drone; the software needed for flight, video and photo recording, photogrammetry; and insurance prior to your first flight.

Drone and 3D model overlay image of the 39th Avenue Greenway concept in Denver, Colorado. / DHM Design

Documentation, permissions, and licensing are also explored in-depth. The authors review the legal rules pertaining to consumer and commercial drone operations. Most importantly, they cover the Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, which is known as 14 CFR Part 107, or in industry parlance the Part 107 exam. This exam is a crucial step in becoming a full-fledge drone operator in the design professions. Another vital step before becoming a commercial operator is understanding the permissions required through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system, which allows for a relatively quick and seamless on-line process to gain permission before flying on site.

Proper documentation needs to be carried at all times. These documents include insurance certificates, your remote pilot license (Part 107), UAS registration, and a log of your flight operations. This documentation is key should something go wrong during your flight, and it is always a good rule of the thumb to be prepared for the worst case scenario.

Through the book, readers will gain an understanding of best flying practices, which many will gain with experience over time, and the importance of an appropriate safe flying mindset, such as developing a procedure for flight operations prior to, during, and at the conclusion of the flight. Situational awareness is key as well as proper flight procedures during manual and automated flying.

Tal and Altschuld explore basic drone photography, which many drone operators will use in the beginning of their flying career since it is relatively straightforward. Plus, the photographic results can be easily adjusted in commonly available Adobe Acrobat or Bluebeam software. Photo match overlays of the proposed project can easily be inserted into the existing site using Photoshop. 3D model photo overlays can also include integrating 3D modeling software models of the proposed design into the existing drone photography. This is a great tool for project visualization and client presentation meetings in which drone visualization images help communicate complex ideas easily and efficiently.

Bird’s Eye drone image of Hudson Gardens in Littleton, Colorado. The base image is used for 3D visualization. / DHM Design
The resulting image, post processed with Photoshop, integrating a Sketchup and Lumion Render creates an expressive, context-rich image. / DHM Design

Chapters on photogrammetry and 3D modeling are the most crucial, because these tasks will ultimately provide the most comprehensive data needed for advancing complex design projects. The catch is that photogrammetry, although simple in concept, is a relatively complex process that requires time and patience. The first-time drone user needs to make sure that the data acquired is consistent and free of bugs; otherwise, the end result – the 3D mesh point cloud — will be rife with topographical errors, and the resulting model will be inaccurate and not suitable for using as a 3D Mesh in Sketchup, Autodesk Revit, or ReCap.

Precision and patience are necessary to produce a highly refined and detailed 3D point cloud. The author explain the steps required for an accurate on-site scan, such as establishing ground control points, proper flight, image collection, and weather planning. These methods require further study and a trial period of trouble shooting. The drone user will most likely produce several versions of a photogrammetric model before arriving at a finished product.

Drone photogrammetry data along I-70 in Colorado. Left to right: initial point cloud, final point cloud, and 3D mesh. / Chinook Landscape Architecture and HDR. Inc.

Drone Technology in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction is well-written and concise enough that the reader will not get bogged down with the details but still be engaged throughout the process. It is perfect for landscape architecture firms seeking to purchase a drone but are unsure of next steps.

Chris S. Sherwin, ASLA, RLA, is managing director and drone mapping expert at CSS D/S LLP in Oakland, California and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Mirei Shigemori: Abstraction, Not Elimination

Mirei Shigemori — Rebel in the Garden by Christian Tschumi / Birkhauser, cover image: Christian Lichtenberg

By Masako Ikegami, ASLA

Few landscape architects embody an aesthetic style as striking and intertwined with a country’s identity as Mirei Shigemori. His landscapes in Japan are one of the greatest representations of the karesansui style, a dry garden that uses neither ponds nor streams but is latent with references to nature. This master designer’s palette includes ripples of stone, deliberately-placed boulders, and highly-sculpted plantings. Each element represents the natural world, not a deletion of it. Indeed, the beauty of Shigemori’s garden is in its exercise of abstraction, not elimination.

In a new book, Mirei Shigemori — Rebel in the Garden, landscape architect Christian Tschumi deconstructs the multiple influences represented in the outward simplicity of Shigemori’s iconic gardens.

Shigemori is presented as an omnivorous seeker of knowledge. By focusing on the complex passions of this landscape master — his upbringing, lifelong pursuits, scholarship and publications, family, and spirituality — the book succeeds in creating a nuanced perspective.

In the first part, Tschumi explains that Shigemori was a practitioner of chado – the art of tea; ardent student of ikebana, the art of flower arranging; one of the first designers to survey all of the gardens in Japan; author of 81 published books; and a designer of 239 gardens. Given the breadth of his interests, it is reasonable to wonder if Shigemori would have called himself a landscape architect. He was a true polymath.

Born in 1896 in Okayama prefecture, Shigemori is enterprising and artistic from his youth; building himself his own chashitsu Tea Room in his teen years and embarking on an education in nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) at the Tokyo Fine Arts School.

Imagine a time in Japan before the Shinkansen bullet trains between Tokyo and Kyoto were first made available in 1964, years before Narita International Airport opened to serve as a gateway for global travel. In the few photos of the man himself, Shigemori is highly engaged, wearing a hakama (traditional Japanese men’s attire) and serving tea, or a three piece suit while accompanying Isamu Noguchi at a stone quarry in mid 1950’s.

Shigemori, at left, is conducting a tour of landscapes around Kyoto for Isamu Noguchi, who was visiting at the time. / Mr Suzue

The author mentions in a rather factual manner that western influences shaped Mirei Shigemori’s life. For example, the name Mirei is not his birth name but one that he adopted in 1925 at age 29. The name refers to Jean-Francois Millet, a 19th Century French artist of pastoral landscapes and daily life. What is implied in this observation of Shigemori’s nom de guerre?

The book then explores a number of Shigemori’s landscapes in detail, including the Maegaki Residence. Built in 1955, this residential garden demonstrates the emergence of Shigemori’s signature style of the undulating line, cut out of stone as if to frame the rectilinear nature of property lines and the engawa veranda typical of traditional homes. Tschumi states this garden was designed early in his career, but at this point Shigemori is just shy of sixty years old. Shown below is the generous residence of a sake brewer, with three distinct garden areas in the front and back of the house.

The wave motif is shown in the South Garden in plan. The sinuous line becomes a recurring theme in Shigemori’s later works. / Shigemori family

The South Garden located in the back of the house is entirely visible and unified with the interior space. The placement of risseki (standing stones) is intended for the viewer imagine boats out in the sea, a mythical journey to the islands of the immortals.

The wave motif is shown in the foreground, with the iconic rock sculptures – risseki, in the middle ground. / Christian Lichtenberg

Tschumi offers a thorough analysis of the garden with Shigemori’s own words, which were a rebuke of what he deemed the amateur nature of gardens in Japan at the time. “People tend to think that anybody can make a garden, without any education or original ideas. A lack of insight on the part of the owner, and knowledge on behalf of the garden maker, provides for many tasteless gardens.” Shigemori is seeking a way to connect to timeless, essential beauty through his artistic endeavors. Lucky is the artist who himself is immortalized in the many gardens still in the care of clients who relish his work.

Perhaps the Japanese term haikara, though colloquial, is an apt description of Shigemori’s personality. Haikara describes a certain type of Japanese gentleman with a Western flair, derived from the English “high collar” fashion popular during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). To use a personal example: my grandfather would have shokupan (sliced milk bread) for breakfast and was considered haikara because he didn’t have the traditional choice of asagohan (rice for breakfast).

Much has been written about how Japanese culture at all levels demonstrates a competition between two opposing forces: modernity and tradition. In simple terms, modernity is often seen as rooted in westernization, and at times an incursion into or dilution of Japanese tradition. But the limitations of such discussions are obvious, and Tschumi is careful not to steep in this theme, allowing the reader to imagine a more complex man in Shigemori.

The majority of the publication focuses on present-day photographs of Shigemori’s landscapes and detailed plans collected by the author with the cooperation with Shigemori’s estate. The projects are astonishingly simple yet staggeringly beautiful. And the reader is again left to question how Shigemori could embark on so many creative endeavors in one lifetime. One quibble: the photography does not depict people and is deliberately devoid of any visitors or caretakers. In reality, droves of visitors admire Shigemori’s landscapes, so they require rigorous maintenance.

In my experience, visiting Tofuku-ji Hojo in Kyoto is like the moment you finally arrive at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Tofuku-ji Hojo in Kyoto is one of the most popular gardens in Japan. / Shigemori family

As visitors to Japan seek out Shigemori’s landscapes, which they may view as aesthetic experiences quintessential to Japanese culture, one actually finds the world at his landscapes. It is a safe bet that a log of visitors to Shigemori’s public gardens would demonstrate more international traffic than any regional airport. This reverse haikara — foreigners flocking to Kyoto to take in Japanese culture and aesthetics — is perhaps driven by the same impulse of the Japanese dandies: in studying the other, they find more of themselves.

Masako Ikegami, ASLA, is a marketing associate with SWA Group in Los Angeles.

The History of the Rails-to-Trails Movement

From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network / University of Nebraska Press

By Charles A. Flink

Peter Harnik’s From Rails-to-Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network explores the interwoven history of American railways and the rails-to-trails movement. As Harnik declares at the outset, “you can’t have a rail-trail if you don’t have an old railroad line.” An oversimplification? Yes. But as Harnik further outlines, rails-to-trail projects are far more complex than pulling up abandoned railroad tracks and converting the rail bed into a walking and bicycling corridor.

Why and how Americans decided to convert abandoned rails to active transportation trail corridors cannot be easily explained. Nearly half of From Rails-to-Trails is devoted to the fascinating history of America’s railroads — why and how they were established; why there were so many different rail corridors; and why thousands of miles of track were later abandoned. The gold rush nature of railroad development generated a glut of duplicative rail lines and associated train service, which after World War II was pared back to match changing needs, culture, and transportation preferences.

Harnik offers the backstory of why Americans demanded outdoor linear-oriented recreation and alternative transportation and then transformed seemingly worthless strips of land into a network of local, regional, and national hiking and biking corridors. He describes the politics behind the rails-to-trail movement, specifically the contributions of public servants, unsung heroes, and forgotten contributors who enabled the movement to succeed. According to Harnik, “the conversion of abandoned rail lines to trails wasn’t a Great Society–type program that came out of a mandate from Washington, D.C. It was an up-from-the-grassroots movement that bubbled out of modest places like Sparta, Wisconsin; Maywood, Illinois; and Rochester, Minnesota.”

From Rails-to-Trails is packed with an incredible array of charts and supporting data that explain all the twists and turns that led Americans to transform 18,000 miles of abandoned railroad into trails. His book is well researched and documented, and the writing style is clean and crisp, and appropriately punctuated with wit and humor.

Harnik, along with David Burwell co-founded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization that was born out of necessity and came of age during increased railroad abandonment and renewed national interest in non-motorized transportation.

Peter Harnik (left) and David Burwell (right) / Robert Trippett

Harnik shares a personal story of bicycling in Manhattan in the 1960’s and longing for landscapes that would be car free and dedicated to non-motorized travel. He describes his early fascination with trains and admits that it took him fifty years to connect the dots and fully appreciate how much he loved both modes of transportation. Harnik’s passion for trains and bicycling is evident as one winds through his marvelous account of how railroads were transformed into trails.

From Rails-to-Trails then answers some of the most important questions about the conversion of abandoned railroad corridors:

Why were there so many railroad corridors in the first place? Harnik recounts that “an extended railroad fever took hold from 1830 to 1890 (nearly 60 years of railroad construction), interrupted only by periodic panics and depressions. And in this environment, companies with the best endpoints, the loudest promoters, and the best connected political lobbyists (and bribe distributors) fared best.” He states that a railroad corridor, unlike a highway corridor, is difficult to share and therefore each track represented a unique economic opportunity. Some popular markets, such as St. Louis and Chicago, were served by numerous independent operators, all of which laid their own railroad.

Pennsylvania Railroad Meyersdale train / courtesy of Bill Metzger collection

What caused Americans to abandon rails? Simply put, America’s romance and love of train travel changed dramatically after World War II. Formerly frequent users of rail service were “waylaid by shiny new government funded highways and airports. Shippers were increasingly choosing trucks, short distance passengers were using cars, and long-distance travelers were rapidly shifting to airplanes.” Railroads began failing at an alarming rate; an economic reckoning was at hand.

How did rail-banking come about and why has it been such an effective strategy for conserving abandoned rail corridors? Harnik profiles a group of young lawyers, lobbyists, and real estate specialists whose combined talents resulted in the creation of a special “bank” designed to receive unique “deposits” of abandoned railroads. “If they were in a bank, they wouldn’t be officially abandoned but could be saved for the future.”

How did the rails-to-trails movement get started and why was the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy a key leader in this movement? Converting rails-to-trails began slowly with a few signature projects developed in random locations across the nation, such as the Elroy-Sparta Trail in Wisconsin, the Burke-Gillman Trail in Seattle, and the Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Iowa.

The movement was born through the dogged determination of a few brave souls who used ingenuity, grit, and determination to rescue abandoned railroads before they were lost forever. The perfect storm of abandoned railroads occurred on November 30, 1981, creating the need for a national non-profit organization to emerge and begin to address the catastrophic collapse of the railroad industry.

Burwell and Harnik were in the right place at the right time, with aligned interests and a passion to challenge the status quo. Harnik reflects “when I first heard about rails-to-trails, I was electrified to discover a type of corridor that had never been sullied by the tread of a tire. Giving no thought to any legal niceties or pitfalls, I immediately set out to publicize that, yes, there was something new under the sun.”

Georgetown Branch B&O railroad track (overhead) became the Capital Crescent Trail / Peter Harnik

The final chapters of the book offer a glimpse into the long-term value of rails-to-trails as the framework for an interconnected, coast-to-coast, non-motorized transportation network capable of satisfying America’s insatiable desire for travel and recreation. Harnik describes how the rails-to-trails movement has matured and evolved to become one of the most important land conservation and real estate enterprises in American history.

With more than 18,000 miles of rail-trails in existence, rails-to-trails surpasses the combined mileage of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and all other national scenic trails. The rails-to-trails movement has forever changed the way in which Americans use trails. Many of the nation’s most popular and heavily used trails are rail-to-trail conversions.

Harnik doesn’t highlight the contributions of any one profession in From Rails-to-Trails. But it is worth noting the contributions landscape architects have made in furthering the movement. Landscape architects led efforts to formulate design guidelines and construction standards for converted rail-to-trails and have consistently led multi-disciplinary teams in the design and development of the most notable rail-to-trail projects in the nation.

Great American Rail Trail / courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Harnik rightfully deserves credit for being one of the pioneers who led a movement that positively affected the lives of millions of Americans. His book will be a reference for trail designers and builders for generations to come.

Chuck A. Flink, FASLA, is an award-winning author and landscape architect. He is the author of The Greenway Imperative: Connecting Communities and Landscapes for a Sustainable Future, University Press of Florida, 2020.

Barbara Wilks’ Dynamic Geographies

Dynamic Geographies / Barbara Wilks, ORO Editions

By Grace Mitchell Tada

Static. According to Barbara Wilks, FASLA, landscapes are too often designed with that operating assumption.

Even though humans have been around for the past 200,000 years, we still have a proclivity to design landscapes to remain the same for 20 to 50 years.

Wilks argues this is a problem that needs to change. Given the projected growth of cities and the challenges of a rapidly shifting climate, she asserts that dynamic landscapes are required for resilient, healthy urban communities.

She strives to create these landscapes at her firm, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture. Her ideas about landscapes emerge from decades of professional experience. In a new book, Dynamic Geographies, Wilks demonstrates how she centers natural processes through her designs. As most of her projects unfold in cities, this necessarily includes altering how humans perceive the landscapes around them.

Wilks defines dynamic geographies as complex systems that use non-anthropogenic forces for adaptation. For landscape architects to integrate these systems into projects, they must consider other species, the interconnectivity of various forms of life, and time as a landscape element. Landscape architects must design to larger and multiple time scales. They must gauge “what could be as opposed to what we want changed now.”

A key aspect to designing at various time scales involves transforming how we manage landscapes—and that includes the management of W’s projects. At present, they require humans to maintain. A truly sustainable landscape, Wilks asserts, can exist without humans, allowing “different flows and rates of change for different species.” As a result, W designs landscapes that welcome these processes: it’s these forms of maintenance that in the long run can yield diverse and sustaining landscapes.

The book divides W’s projects into three categories: “(In)visible Geographies,” “Layered Geographies,” and “Unleashing Geographies.” Each section builds on the other, and projects across these sections seek to illuminate landscapes’ dynamism and situate geographies within extended time scales. While Wilks doesn’t claim success in all her projects—“this book is a critical look back at our success and failures at W”—one can glean effective strategies to instill dynamism throughout projects.

In the first section, projects attempt to reveal aspects of sites often hidden, “making them manifest, so that urban dwellers have the opportunity to situate themselves in larger systems that transcend their immediate realities,” writes Alison Hirsch in the book’s introduction. Wilks is not nostalgic for us to return to previous time or to lost landscapes. “We can’t return to the past,” she writes, but “we can construct new relationships that bind us into the fabric of a place’s ongoing evolution.”

Through these new relationships, Wilks hopes communities can understand they are embedded in and not separate from nature. W’s projects facilitate this understanding in various ways. In Baltimore, a waterfront soap factory simultaneously reflects its location in the greater Chesapeake Bay region and in an industrial harbor. In Brooklyn, the off-kilter angles of the piers at the Edge project echo the turbulence of the East River into which they extend.

At West Harlem Piers Park in Manhattan, newly designed piers adopt the patterns of the Hudson River instead of the city grid. The site’s forms resemble sand dunes and the benches recall driftwood. The project, though, didn’t emerge solely of the designer’s ideas. In fact, the community spurned W’s initial conception of the project involving a “missing pier”—a field of piles in the Hudson—as too evocative of a ruin. In its place, New York City’s first reef ball structure was developed, which today serves as habitat to a diversity of aquatic life.

West Harlem Piers, New York, NY / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The book’s second section, “Layered Geographies,” doubles down on integrating the social and ecological systems comprising urban spaces. The projects here demonstrate the relationships between communities and the place in which they’re embedded. Several projects were designed for communities in places destroyed by urban renewal or disregarded by infrastructure projects, including in St. Louis and Detroit.

Chouteau Greenway, St. Louis, MO / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

One such project is Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter in Tampa, Florida. The park was previously an African American neighborhood, which was demolished with the construction of a highway. A park was established in its place, from which the displaced community understandably felt estranged. W was brought in to work with them to develop a park that reflected what they wanted. Not only does the new park embody the community’s desires, but it weaves into the surrounding urban social fabric and allows the river ecology to flourish. Like many of W’s projects, this landscape necessitated considerations of many time scales — from the daily to the generational to the geological.

Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The final section, “Unleashing Geographies,” further elevates nonhuman systems and their agency in shaping landscapes, especially over extended time scales. Wilks is interested in how their landscapes will evolve and how they can support all varieties of biophysical systems through this evolution. They are about humans letting go.

This objective is exemplified by W’s design at St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Alberta. W accentuated the shifting nature of the island, removing static water-protective barriers around the edge and welcoming water flows through the island. The design fosters the emergence of streams and wetlands, which will move over time while designating certain “fixed” areas for human activity. According to Wilks, perhaps expressing her ideal of a designed landscape, “it is a living landscape with smaller human-managed areas set within it.”

St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

Through their deference to natural systems, projects like St. Patrick’s Island achieve lasting change. These projects, Wilks insists, must enable new growth and development of adaptable systems—not just preservation of existing ones. As she points out, even small projects in this vein show how they can succeed on other sites, encouraging more such efforts to proliferate. Here, especially, the book may prove useful to other landscape architects and designers, who can glean inspiration from W’s projects.

As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.

Conversations with Olmsted: His Visions for Reform

Map from the 1862 edition of Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom by Frederick Law Olmsted. / Courtesy of the PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography at Cornell University

Social justice, equity, and reform are not new topics for landscape architecture — rather, they are at its origin. Frederick Law Olmsted’s prominent role in shaping public opinion on social reform in the period leading up to and during the Civil War still impacts practice today.

As part of Olmsted 200, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) will host a free online conversation on May 18 that re-centers the way we tell the story of Olmsted’s work and the origins of landscape architecture.

A group of scholars from Harvard University — Sara Zewde, founding principal, Studio Zewde, and assistant professor, Graduate School of Design; John Stauffer, professor of English and African and African American Studies; and Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, John E. Irving professor of landscape architecture and director of the office for urbanization, Graduate School of Design — will delve into a few key areas.

The speakers will outline the conditions of 19th century cities, including intense rural-to-urban migration, industrialization, and immigration, and how these conditions impacted the discipline of landscape architecture. They will explore how — through his writing — Olmsted confronted the institution of slavery and the cotton economy.

Bringing Olmsted into the present, Zewde, Stauffer, and Waldheim will explore how Olmsted’s values and advocacy for social reform translate to today’s urban and cultural challenges. And they will also discuss how landscape architecture, from its inception, aimed to address societal and environmental conditions through design — and how racial equity and environmental justice issues continue to shape what landscape architects design today.

Conversations with Olmsted: His Visions for Reform is free and will be hosted virtually on May 18 at 3pm EST.

Please register today.

For landscape architects: this webinar will provide 1.0 PDH (LA CES/HSW).

Conversations with Olmsted is the first in a series of Olmsted 200 programs. Olmsted 200 is a national celebration spearheaded by a coalition of national organizations marking Frederick Law Olmsted’s bicentennial birthday on April 26, 2022.

Help us preserve and share Olmsted’s legacy by visiting Olmsted200.org, subscribing to the Olmsted Insider newsletter, and following Olmsted 200 on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

A Vision for Truly Inclusive Public Spaces Rooted in Olmsted’s Core Values

Reimagining Frederick Law Olmsted’s 527-acre Franklin Park in Boston’s Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods as an inclusive and accessible “country park” in the city. ASLA 2020 Student General Design Honor Award. Breaking Barriers. Xiao (Phoebe) Cheng, Student ASLA. Faculty Advisors: Gina Ford, FASLA; Maggie Hansen, University of Texas at Austin

By Roxanne Blackwell, Jared Green, and Lisa J. Jennings

Olmsted was committed to democratic access to public space, which is one of the foundations of inclusion. Communities can re-imagine this core value to plan and design more inclusive places.

Frederick Law Olmsted believed universal access to nature and beauty in designed landscapes would help elevate community health and in turn social discourse. He was guided by the belief that public spaces should be accessible and inclusive. He believed public parks would serve as a democratizing force, bringing many communities together to forge a new American society.

In the lead-up to the Civil War, Olmsted was a political reporter who explored the slave states of the South and wrote influential pieces on what he experienced for The New York Daily Times and in a series of books. During his southern journey, Olmsted witnessed the impact of African and African-American slaves on the American landscape.

According to Austin Allen, ASLA, PhD, associate professor of landscape architecture emeritus at the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, “Olmsted became more aware of the way African and African American slaves were shaping the American landscape.” Slaves had an “untold and impactful influence” on Olmsted’s early conception of American landscape architecture.

However, when Olmsted began his career as a landscape architect with the commission to plan and design Central Park in New York City, he also advocated for parks to have a homogenizing and “civilizing” influence on whom he described in his writings as “Negroes,” “immigrants,” and “the working class.” In his view, parks would elevate these groups by enabling them to participate in public spaces with white Americans, whom he considered to be the upper classes even after the Civil War. Classes would converge towards a particular vision of how society should exist, one set by white elites.

As contemporary American communities plan and design networks of public parks that serve as common ground for an increasingly diverse society, it is important to maintain Olmsted’s core values – democratic access to public spaces – but to also imagine what true inclusion in public spaces looks and feels like for all communities.

For public spaces to be truly inclusive and accessible, they must be comfortable for all visitors. This can only happen if diverse communities have the opportunity to guide the planning and design process; see their identities, ideas, and cultures reflected in designed spaces; and enjoy these spaces in comfort and safety.

Public spaces must also be designed for users of all abilities. Everyone navigates the built environment differently, with abilities changing across a person’s lifespan. The population of people with physical, auditory, or visual disabilities, autism or neurodevelopmental and/or intellectual disabilities, or neurocognitive disorders will face greater challenges navigating public spaces until they are fully included in the planning and design process.

Public spaces cannot be planned and designed as a homogenizing force that seeks to elevate some of us towards one version of an ideal society. Parks should not erase histories or voices to fit a single narrative. Instead, they must be more nuanced places where multiple stories can be told; where gender, racial, ethnic, and other forms of diversity can be celebrated; where racial and class reconciliation can be facilitated; where everyone has a safe connection to a messier but more real shared history and culture.

Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, is Director of Federal Government Affairs at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Jared Green is editor of THE DIRT at ASLA. Lisa J. Jennings is Manager, Career Discovery and Diversity at ASLA.

This article was re-posted from Olmsted 200, the celebration of the bicentennial of Frederick Law Olmsted’s birth. To get involved, visit their website, subscribe to their newsletter, and follow Olmsted 200 on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Find New Resilience by Telling Your Story

Manzanar War Relocation Camp in the Owens Valley, California / istockphoto.com

By Masako Ikegami, ASLA

Sometimes the news will shake your core beliefs. The recent rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans has been one such example. Conversations with friends veer towards safety tips, punctuated by talk of harrowing moments when being a visible minority made us feel “othered” and uncomfortable. Feeling hopelessness and despair for your cultural and ethnic background is a shattering experience.

To find resilience and hope despite these incidents is difficult. And truth be told, our collective worries about health and safety had already become heightened as we remain vigilant against the global pandemic that has upended our daily lives. On the tailwinds of a year like this, what can we do as landscape architects to contribute to racial and social justice?

Some landscapes tell the story of injustice, so as to guard against its re-occurrence. A few summers ago, as I drove through the Eastern Sierras to a weekend camping trip, the Manzanar National Historic Site, a Japanese internment camp in Owens Valley, California, emerged against the desert sun. The barracks and fencing can be seen from afar, imposing and starkly inhuman against the splendor of nature. Yet other landscapes show us a more subtle display of the same history.

During a visit to the Descanso Gardens a few years ago, I noticed a fragrant bloom of camellias drawing a crowd of admirers. Planted under an impressive stand of oaks, the delicate flowers looked as if to float in space. These two landscapes struck me in their historic connection.

Camelia collection at Descanso Gardens / Masako Ikegami

The origin of the Camellia Collection at Descanso Gardens is tied to the year 1942, when approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated by the U.S. government. It is said that the founder of Descanso Gardens purchased nursery stock from at least three Japanese American nurseries. The camellia plants, including rare ones, constituted the life’s work of the Japanese owners who had been forced into incarceration.

The blooming camellias seemed to echo the scale of lives upended, but also the resilience of the Japanese American families who came after. Is it wrong to admire a plant collection connected with such a history?

For better or worse, throughout my career, I have always described my passion for landscape architecture in terms of concerns for the environment, health and recreation, and promoting the public realm as a physical space for our democratic ideals. But what about our personal narratives, the experiences that shape us, and the cultures we value? How can we bring more of ourselves to our design work?

My commitments are the following:

  • To seek out opportunities to introduce young students to the field of landscape architecture, particularly in communities that are currently under represented in our profession.
  • To nurture relationships with professionals in all stages of their career and create a culture of acceptance for our individual priorities and passions.
  • To be open to sharing my own challenges past and present as a way to better the experiences of future professionals.

For many of us in the past year, we have seen significant change in the way our firms have addressed racial justice and the persistence of violence and disenfranchisement in communities of color.

These are unprecedented times. We may not have the answers, but without more individuals stepping forward, we cannot move the whole.

Masako Ikegami, ASLA, is a marketing associate with SWA Group in Los Angeles.

Let’s Destroy the Myth of Asian Americans as the Model Minority

Stop Asian Hate protest in Chicago’s Chinatown / Ernie Wong

By Ernie Wong, FASLA

Asian hate crimes have grown an alarming 150 percent over the past year. While other forms of crime are declining, this phenomenon is leading to real fear and anger in Asian communities throughout the country.

Landscape architecture is a part of the broader society, so the field is also directly impacted. From overseas students in landscape architecture education programs to the Asian communities that design firms serve, landscape architects are entrenched in dealing with society’s woes, especially when they occur in the public realm.

The demographics of our own profession have also shifted over the years, with a steady increase of Asians in the workforce and a conscious effort by many firms to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their company values. In our own diverse firm, Asians constitutes about one-third of our total employees, with the majority of our leadership fitting into this category.

The murders in Atlanta shook us to the core and was deeply personal to many of us. Even while many of our staff know that I advocate on behalf of all communities of color, gender, religion and beliefs, I felt to the need to reach out with some reassurance of safety and care. It also was a time to again reflect on our own personal experiences and thoughts about race and this country, while allowing our staff to reveal any bias they had encountered. Interestingly but expected, nobody came forward.

There has always been a level of resentment against Asians throughout our history in America. Whether overt or subversive, the sentiment has always put a label on Asians as weak and submissive, or the “model minority,” a term that infuriates us. The term “Asian American” loops all of these extremely diverse communities into a single pool, absent of our nationalities, languages, religions, traditions, and experiences. The complexities and nuances are ignored, and our histories are made insignificant.

Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley
Ping Tom Park in Chicago, Illinois by site design group (site) / Scott Shigley

The history of Asians in America is largely unknown to most Americans, let alone the hundreds of Asian students flocking to the U.S. for a prestigious education. According to ASLA’s data, in 2017, at accredited landscape architecture programs in the U.S., the enrollment of international students over a five-year period grew 52 percent, and a majority of these students were from Asia. Those are significant numbers and a boon for the universities that can profit from these students.

What’s missing is the orientation and cultural diversity training that can help overseas students integrate into American culture. Suddenly, these students are thrust into a world defined by race and ethnicity, religion and gender identity. Unless they have a high fluency in the English language, engagement — and the initiation of such — remains the onus of the student. Thus, we find the clustering and isolation of overseas students struggling to understand “diversity.” Unfortunately, the characterization of race and culture in most media outlets only adds to the stereotyping, leaving their imaginations jaded.

When you add the experiences of expatriates throughout Asia who receive preferential treatment, those images further re-inforce the social hierarchy of white colonialism and Asian subordination and inferiority. Given the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women and the desexualization of Asian men — who are characterized as being passive, effeminate, and weak — the incident in Atlanta could’ve occurred anywhere.

We are all struggling with diversity, equity, and inclusion in this country. The discussion is starting, but the results are distant. As fellow landscape architects, I am calling on you to be more sensitive to Asian experiences.

I’m calling on you to help destroy Asian stereotypes and the MYTH of the “model minority,” which is simply a lie to pit other people of color against Asians. I’m calling on you to disperse the fear that we have of each other — fear that some group will take another group’s jobs, or one type of people will harm another type of person. I’m calling on you to stand in solidarity with the #StopAsianHate movement.

Stop Asian Hate protest in Chicago’s Chinatown / Ernie Wong

Most of all, I’m calling on you to see the world as bigger than ourselves and continue to engage with people who are different than you.

Ernie Wong, FASLA, is a founding principal of site design group, ltd. (site) based in Chicago, Illinois. He is an Asian American male born and raised on the Southside of Chicago and continues to resolve his own identity issues.

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