Green Infrastructure Through the Revival of Ancient Wisdom

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

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

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

Gray Infrastructure and Broken Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ancient Wisdom of Peasantry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revival of the Ancient Wisdom to Create an Alternative Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Memorials Can Be Designed to Evolve

Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia / Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Headless Junipero Serra statue / US Franciscans

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

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


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

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

National September 11 Memorial / PWP Landscape Architecture

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


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

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

September 11 survivor tree / Smithsonian

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

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

Californian condor / Jessica Neafsey

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

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

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

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

ASLA Announces 2017 Professional Awards

ASLA 2017 Professional General Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas. OJB Landscape Architecture / Thomas McConnell Photography

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has announced its 38 professional award recipients for 2017. Selected from 465 entries, the awards recognize the best of landscape architecture in the general design, analysis and planning, communications, research, and residential design categories from the United States and around the world.

The winners will receive their awards at the ASLA Annual Meeting and EXPO in Los Angeles on Monday, October 23, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The September issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM) features the winning projects and is available free.

The following is a complete list of 2017 professional award winners:

General Design Category

Award of Excellence

Klyde Warren Park – Bridging the Gap in Downtown Dallas, Dallas (see image above)
by OJB Landscape Architecture for the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation

Honor Awards

The Entrance Garden, Sao Paulo, Brazil
by Alex Hanazaki Paisagismo for Eliane Revestimentos

Windhover Contemplative Center, San Francisco
by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture for Stanford University

Owens Lake Land Art, Inyo County, California
by NUVIS Landscape Architecture for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

SteelStacks Arts + Cultural Campus, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
by WRT for the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Bethlehem

Central Seawall Project, Seattle
by James Corner Field Operations LLC for the City of Seattle Department of Transportation and Office of The Waterfront

The Yue-Yuan Courtyard, Suzhou, China
by Z+T Studio Landscape Architecture for Avic Legend Co. Ltd.

Merging Culture and Ecology at The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina
by Surface 678 for the North Carolina Museum of Art

Chicago Botanic Garden: The Regenstein Learning Campus, Chicago
by Mikyoung Kim Design and Jacobs/Ryan Associates for the Chicago Botanic Garden

Workplace as Landscape – Facebook MPK20, San Francisco
by CMG Landscape Architecture for Facebook

Analysis and Planning Category

Award of Excellence

ASLA 2017 Professional Analysis and Planning Award of Excellence. Storm + Sand + Sea + Strand — Barrier Island Resiliency Planning for Galveston Island State Park, Galveston, Texas. Studio Outside / Studio Outside

Storm + Sand + Sea + Strand — Barrier Island Resiliency Planning for Galveston Island State Park, Galveston, Texas
by Studio Outside for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

Honor Awards

The Olana Strategic Landscape Design Plan: Restoring an American Masterpiece, Hudson, New York
by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects for the Olana Partnership and The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Waterfront Botanical Gardens, Louisville, Kentucky
by Perkins+Will for Botanica

Positioning Pullman, Chicago
by Site for the National Parks Conservation Association

Conservation at the Edge – Prototyping Low-intervention Conservation in the Patagonian Wilderness, Cambridge, Massachusetts
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture for Victor F. Trahan III, FAIA

Fitzgerald Revitalization Project: Landscapes as the Framework for Community Reinvestment, Detroit
by Spackman Mossop Michaels for the City of Detroit

Texas Capitol Complex Master Plan, Austin, Texas
by Page and Sasaki Associates for the Texas Facilities Commission

Communications Category

Award of Excellence

ASLA 2017 Professional Communications Award of Excellence. Digital Library of Landscape Architecture History. Benjamin George, ASLA / Benjamin George

Digital Library of Landscape Architecture History
by Benjamin George, ASLA

Honor Awards

Ecology as the Inspiration for a Presidential Library Park
by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. for the George W. Bush Presidential Center

The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin
by The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Toward an Urban Ecology
by Scape, published by The Monacelli Press

‘Jens Jensen The Living Green,’ A Feature Documentary
by Viva Lundin Productions and the University of Michigan

Championing Connectivity: How an International Competition Captured Global Attention and Inspired Innovation in Wildlife Crossing Design
by ARC Solutions

Research Category

Award of Excellence

ASLA 2017 Professional Research Award of Excellence. Fluid Territory: A Journey into Svalbard, Norway. Kathleen John-Alder, ASLA, Rutgers University, and Tromsø Academy / Herta Lampert Archives

Fluid Territory: A Journey into Svalbard, Norway
by Kathleen John-Alder, ASLA, Rutgers University, Tromsø Academy

Honor Awards

Climate Change Impacts on Cultural Landscapes in the Pacific West Region, National Park System
by Cultural Landscape Research Group, University of Oregon for the Pacific West Region, National Park Service

Seeding Green Roofs for Greater Biodiversity and Lower Costs
by Richard Sutton, FASLA, for the Sandhills Publishing Inc., Arbor Day Foundation, Tetrad Property Group, LPS NRD, and Lincoln Urban Development

Rendering Los Angeles Green: The Greenways to Rivers Arterial Stormwater System (GRASS)
by Lee-Anne Milburn, FASLA, for the City of Los Angeles, Bureau of Sanitation

The Ecological Atlas Project
by Studio Roberto Rovira

Residential Design Category

Award of Excellence

ASLA 2017 Professional Residential Design Award of Excellence. Birmingham Residence. Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture / Marion Brenner

Birmingham Residence, San Francisco
by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture for Linda Dresner

Honor Awards

Telegraph Hill Residence, San Francisco
by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

Northeast Harbor, a Restoration on Mount Desert Island, Hancock County, Maine
by Stephen Stimson Associates | Landscape Architects

Smith Residence
by Roche + Roche Landscape Architecture

Casa Las Brisas – Formation of a Coastal Retreat, Las Condes, Chile
by C. Stuart Moore Design

Proving Grounds – A 20-Year Education in American Horticulture
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture for Adam R. Rose and Peter R. McQuillan

Agrarian Modern – The Recovery and Renewal of Manatuck Farm
by Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture

Abstracting Morphology
by HOLLANDERdesign | Landscape Architects

Northpoint Apartments, Orinda, California
by JETT Landscape Architecture + Design Inc. for Aline Estournes, Northpoint Apartments LLC

The Landmark Award

ASLA 2017 Landmark Award. J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles. OLIN / OLIN, Sahar Coston-Hardy

The J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles
by OLIN for the J. Paul Getty Trust

The professional awards jury included:

  • Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, Chair, National Capital Planning Commission, Washington, D.C.
  • Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, DesignJones LLC, New Orleans
  • Maureen Alonso, U.S. General Services Administration, Washington, D.C.
  • James Lord, ASLA, Surfacedesign Inc., San Francisco\
  • Janet Rosenberg, FASLA, Janet Rosenberg Studio, Toronto
  • Glen Schmidt, FASLA, Schmidt Design Group Inc., San Diego
  • Todd Wichman, FASLA, Stantec, St. Paul
  • Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

For the selection of the Research Category, the jury was joined by M. Elen Deming, ASLA, University of Illinois, Champaign, Illinois, on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., on behalf of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).

Help Hurricane Harvey’s Victims

Hurricane Harvey submerges Houston / Business Insider, Getty Images

A Request from ASLA Texas Trustee Tim May

Harvey continues to wreak havoc on upper Texas Gulf Coast, with more rain flowing into our Houston bayous and reservoirs. Through this, we Texans and the Texas Chapter of ASLA are grateful for ASLA’s offered assistance, concern, and willingness to get the word out to the national membership and public.

Organizations with on-line donations opportunities are:

American Red Cross

Hurricane Harvey Relief Efforts (Salvation Army)

Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund (Houston Mayor)

Houston Flood Relief Fund (NFL Houston Texans Football Player JJ Watts)

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster

United Way

Along with our Greater Houston and Harris County needs, we want to keep our fellow Texans in Matagorda, Victoria, Galveston, Fort Bend, Brazoria, Waller, Montgomery, and many other counties in mind for giving and generosities.

Our friends in Arkansas and Louisiana are now feeling the might of Harvey, and they too will need our prayers, thoughts, and assistance. Harvey has impacted multiple generations of people, and a way of life may be forever changed.

Thank you again,

director of planning / landscape Architecture, Houston
Halff Associates

Review: NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide

NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

The NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide should first be commended for the sheer amount of information it compresses into a succinct guide that touches upon nearly every consideration in the planning and design of green streets. I can only imagine the amount of coordination that took place to assemble the different national green street case studies, as well as the nearly impossible task of reigning in different perspectives on streetscape design from various planning and design disciplines.

While past NACTO guidebooks have successfully focused solely on street, bikeway, or transit design, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide delivers one of the most comprehensive guides on how to combine complete street design and green infrastructure stormwater management. Having a volume like this on one’s shelf is extremely helpful to anyone who is engaged in even general streetscape planning and design, as it points out the importance of having green infrastructure integrated into the right-of-way.

Design guidebooks are always a unique snapshot in time. They highlight our current understanding of design application and what, at the moment, can be implemented. This is an important consideration for the Urban Street Stormwater Guide — it reflects our design comprehension of green infrastructure at the current moment. This too will, and must, evolve over time.

Early sections of the guide provide a powerful argument for why “Streets are Ecosystems.” Stormwater runoff is no longer treated as a waste but as a valuable resource that should be managed in the right-of-way using a green infrastructure approach. The design community, I believe, comprehends and embraces this basic premise, but there is still a lack of understanding, which is reflected in this guidebook and reverberates in today’s built green street projects.

While stormwater runoff is now not considered a waste, it is still mistakenly labeled as a source of the problem of urban stormwater management. Runoff is not the source, but a symptom and result of the larger problem that urbanization has dramatically removed natural landscape systems and replaced them with impervious area.

We now focus on treating the symptom of “too much stormwater runoff” by designing small-footprint, deep-profile “landscapes” that force water back into the ground to prevent urban flooding, reduce the burden on grey stormwater infrastructure systems, or comply with state and federal regulations.

While reducing flooding and infrastructure capacity issues are important, these approaches create a water-centric approach very much reflected in this guidebook, which dilutes the focus and urgency to address the real problem of landscape loss. The only way to address this issue is to dramatically spread the footprint of vegetation and perviousness in our built environments. Only when we advocate and create a greater balance of green space and perviousness in our cities can we then accurately label our streets as “ecosystems.”

The Urban Street Stormwater Guide provides a series of “stormwater streets” as hypothetical scenarios of different urban conditions, such as a green transitway, ultra-urban green street, boulevard, neighborhood main street, and a host of other urban contexts. These are valuable glimpses of the possibilities of introducing vegetated swales, stormwater planters, pervious paving, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure and complete street elements into urban conditions.

However, the models shown have a definite tilt towards very urban conditions with the huge rights-of-way commonly found in larger American cities. The hypothetical boulevards, transit streets, and even the neighborhood main streets green street examples in the guidebook look nothing like those that I have worked on in smaller cities. Where are the examples outside of the big city? How about strip mall or big-box arterial streets, small-town main streets with tight sidewalks and packed with on-street parking, and the ultra-wide suburban residential streets that have covered mass landscapes in this country?

Typical strip mall / Kevin Robert Perry

I raise this question, because these latter streets are just as impervious and incomplete. They produce massive amounts of stormwater runoff, just like our big city downtown streets, but are completely forgotten in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide vernacular.

From a stormwater management perspective, I define an urban street as any street that has a curb, gutter, and sidewalk that produces excessive stormwater runoff. It appears that the Urban Street Stormwater Guide defines an urban street similarly, but focuses largely in ultra-urban downtown conditions. Perhaps there is an opportunity to follow up this guide with a “less-urban” street stormwater companion guide.

I think that this omission is largely due, again, to the “snapshot in time” effect and focuses more on examples where green streets are currently being implemented: in big cities that are trying to comply with stormwater consent decrees and/or dealing with infrastructure capacity issues. The truth is that we need green streets in all urban contexts, and those should be better represented in this guide.

As I mentioned before, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide packs in an incredible amount of information in a finite number of pages. It feels almost too dense, where some graphics and photos are reduced to a miniscule scale, and text flows as if one is simply reading a series of bullet points (albeit good bullet points). In fact, some of the very important cross-sections of types of stormwater facilities are so cryptic, with minimal or no text call-outs or dimensions, that they remind me of the pictures illustrated when one is trying to follow an IKEA shelve assembly instructions manual. When dealing with urban stormwater, cross-sections illustrating very specific horizontal and vertical layout are critical.

Diagram / NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide

Lastly, I worry that many of the cross-sections, and even the built project photo examples, suggest too much hardscape in the form of vertical walls to contain landscape and soil. Excessively-engineered green street facilities go against the very principles of green infrastructure to keep things simple, shallow, cost-effective, and beautiful.

Seattle Green Street / photo: Mike Nakamura, from NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide

One of the most successful elements in the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is the numerous design, planning, and policy case study examples shown throughout the United States. Each case study describes the project’s goals, project overview, design details, keys to success, lessons learned, and qualitative and quantitative outcomes. There are excellent pictures of projects shown in action.

Some case projects are clearly more successful than others, but it is extremely valuable for everyone to understand what has been built and how the project is performing, regardless of its real or perceived level of success.

Another very successful piece of the guide is Section 5: Partnerships and Performance, which highlights successful green street programs and policies from around the United States, details the need for inter-agency and private-public partnerships, and outlines operation and maintenance roles and responsibilities. The discussion of operations and maintenance should take a more formative role earlier in the guide, as maintenance often defines what can be built, to what extent, and how it will perform in the long-term.

NACTO Urban Street Stormwater Guide / Island Press

In conclusion, the Urban Street Stormwater Guide is an valuable resource to those planning and designing green street projects. It makes a very strong argument that green streets and complete streets can live symbiotically and details different examples on how to combine these design strategies.

This guide is a wonderful snapshot in time of what has been built, but the guide also shows that we still have much to learn and that green infrastructure strategies are still evolving. I again really commend the amount of information provided in the guide and the level of coordination that was needed to complete it. I look forward to the next edition of the Urban Street Stormwater Guide.

This guest post is by Kevin Robert Perry, ASLA, principal of Urban Rain Design.

How Joplin, Missouri, Used Nature to Recover from a Devastating Tornado

I’ve always been struck by the undeniable power of nature. It destroys—as it did on a late Sunday afternoon in May, in Joplin, Missouri, six years ago when an EF5, mile-wide tornado chewed through the city in 38 minutes. It left 161 people dead, 1,150 others injured, countless more traumatized–and the rest of us watching and aching for them all. Aside from the human toll, it also caused billions of dollars in damages, and left thousands of trees decimated, uprooted or maimed.

Joplin was devastated. It needed to recover in every sense—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Many stories have been told in the aftermath of how the city drew together, rose up, and rebuilt.

But one story that’s not been told is about how nature, the thing that brought the destruction, has been the very thing that is bringing much needed emotional recovery to the community. Nature heals too. This is the story we wanted to tell.

When I flew in to Joplin, I gasped as I saw the massive scar in the landscape left by the tornado. It was a mile wide and several miles long. From that perspective high above the city, all that I could see was the destruction. But on the ground, a different picture emerged.

Key community members shared their stories and those of the community. Chris Cotten, head of Parks and Recreation for Joplin, was one of them. I quickly began to see what he saw: hope, hard work, and resilience were everywhere. And then I heard about the butterflies. Many community members told us stories of how the butterflies had saved them. Children told stories of being protected by them–like angels–while the destruction roared around them. I was captivated; but we weren’t the only ones who saw nature as a potential piece of the city’s recovery.

Just after the tornado hit, The New York Times ran a series of haunting images, including ones of Cunningham Park, showing a devastated landscape; mangled trees that had been stripped of their canopies and bark. These caught the eye of Cornell University’s Keith Tidball, who dropped everything to go to Joplin and, in his words, begin planting. A researcher and author, Keith has done some amazing work and spent years studying how nature can be a source of resilience for communities in crisis. He had been working in post-Katrina New Orleans just prior to the tornado.

Keith connected with Chris, and the idea for a healing garden was born. They worked quickly, with the support of the TKF Foundation to assemble a diverse team that included city officials, landscape architects, psychologists, musical therapists and urban planners–and most importantly, the community. Fusing research, design and nature—a healing garden the community named the Butterfly Garden and Overlook opened to the public in May 2014. As former Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean described to us, it’s a place where children and adults go to feel safe and whole, and to reflect. To recover. The nature effect is real. And our understanding of just how powerful its benefits are continues to grow.

Stories like this one, from Joplin, have much to teach us. Even in the hardest hit places, whether the disaster is natural or man-made, nature can heal and restore—and has the power to unify and rebuild communities in lasting ways.

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

Engagement by Design

Staten Island Living Breakwaters Community Meeting / Rebuild by Design

It’s been just over three years since the winners of the Rebuild by Design competition were announced. Since then, there have been almost 400 meetings with communities around each of the seven project sites in the New York metro region. The competition, launched by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, called for large-scale, cross-sector, hybrid solutions to make communities more resilient to future storms.

Long before construction begins, teams in charge of design and implementation are helping community stakeholders visualize the project, the goal being to stimulate dialogue. At each step, community feedback is integrated into plans and designs.

Staff of Rebuild by Design — a research and design organization that was formed after the competition — attended public meetings held by every design team, where they have catalogued the most effective community engagement practices. Engagement by Design, an event put on by the organization at New York University, showcased them:

Living Breakwaters, which was presented by Nans Voron, SCAPE Landscape Architects, and Victoria Cerullo, Living Breakwaters Citizens Advisory Committee, is an innovative project off the coast of Staten Island that will use constructed offshore oyster reefs to attentuate waves in future storms and reduce shoreline erosion. In addition, the project will increase biodiversity and social resiliency by providing educational and stewardship opportunities and increased access to the shoreline.

Living Breakwaters is unusual for an urban landscape design, in that much of it is underwater and over 500 feet offshore. This proved to be a challenge when it came to communicating the project to the public. “Even though we were producing renderings to try to envision the future, at the end of the day it’s still very hard to communicate the experience a boater, a swimmer, or even an oyster will have next to one of the breakwaters,” said Voron.

The team began to use virtual reality (VR) goggles to help the public visualize the project. Voron believes VR offers the opportunity for a more visceral and immersive understanding of the effects of climate change. When classic flood maps fall short in their ability to communicate urgency, VR has the potential to create a deeper emotional impact.

Hoboken, a city hit especially hard by hurricane Sandy, recently released the draft Environmental Impact Statement for an urban water management strategy with four components: Resist, Delay, Retain and Discharge. Most of the Rebuild by Design competition funding is going to the “resist” features, which keep storm surges out of the city. The resist features morph into various forms depending on surroundings, so the team decided to make a flyover animation to give context and scale to this complex infrastructural intervention.

Alexis Taylor, outreach team leader for the New Jersey department of environmental Protection, narrated as a flyover animation of the current preferred design for the urban water management plan played. The animation followed the path of the resist feature through city, as it changed from a berm with a serpentine path and integrated recreational spaces to a floodgate closure and then a way-finding device.

At certain points, Taylor interjected to tell the audience that features had been added or amended based on community recommendations. The absence of a fixed audio narrative for the animation allows anyone presenting it to describe the project in their own voice — whether they are a city official or a Hoboken community member.

All teams admitted the engagement process is not without conflict. Angela Tovar, The Point Community Development Corporation (CDC) in the Bronx, urged project teams to be patient with the “planning fatigue” of community members reticent to participate, especially in under-served communities such as the Bronx. For decades, these communities have been subjected to broken promises by city officials, discriminatory housing policies, and environmental injustices, so promises of improved quality of life can be met with justified skepticism.

For David Kooris, director of Rebuild by Design & national disaster resilience for Connecticut, community engagement is not a necessary evil, but critical to evaluating the progress of the project: “I would be very nervous to follow just the bare minimum standards, and once every few months go to a public hearing not having any idea what people were going to show up and say.” By meeting with the stakeholders in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on a near-weekly basis, “I know what all the issues are. I know the ones we can address and the ones we can’t, and we can tweak the project in response to them.”

“I think the most important thing is to arm people with information,” explained Taylor. “Whether or not they are going to come out in support or opposition is fine, at least we are giving them the tools to communicate.”

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

Landscape Architects as Futurists

Delivery robot / Starship Technologies

We learn about landscape architecture through a study of context. Technical courses teach students to see the physical characteristics of a site. We learn to identify slope, follow the point of steepest grade in a trail of mud following a rainstorm, identify ecosystems. Theoretical courses teach students to see the intangible qualities of a site — the implications of design decisions upon usability. We learn about the exciting but unpredictable ways a site may develop and come to be used differently than originally intended.

Forward-thinking landscape architecture practice usually involves re-combining the physical and intangible characteristics of a site. Excellent waterfront and post-industrial redevelopment landscape projects have inspired a generation of landscape architects. “What can this become?” is the question that sets most of us on fire.

We imagine a behemoth dump as a park, breathing life back into a great metropolis. A concrete drainage channel transforms into a living waterway, mixed-use development, and microbreweries springing up like eddies along its length. Disused utility easements become oases for habitat in the most unexpected of urban places. We have also seen an increasing amount of “futuristic” landscapes, with high-tech features, such as interactive light or water, app-enabled components, and more.

But what of the impact of new technologies in our built environment? We have anticipated autonomous vehicles for some time (to little effect in our design decisions), but what of the possibilities of autonomous delivery vehicles, or average urban dweller navigating their day with the aid of a reality-enhancing headset, or the convenience/intrusion of biometric scanning as an Apple Pay-inspired method of negotiating daily life?

Without the human element, landscape architecture is not landscape architecture. Yet humans do not remain static and are now in the process of technology-assisted development. In light of these impending realities, what can landscape architects do to maintain an edge on the design of public spaces?

As a profession of such varied talents and individual specialties, there is a place for landscape architects as futurists. There exist landscape architects as ecologists, living systems designers, food system engineers, and health care amenity designers. Leafing through the ASLA annual meeting presentations is enough to inspire the most dispirited of practitioners with new possibilities.

A “futurist” is “a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes,” writes the Association of Professional Futurists (APF). This should resonate with landscape architects.

Whether we study the condition of a breakwater and local weather patterns in order to recommend an appropriate intervention or recommend a green roof or living system at an urban development project to address the urban heat island effect, we are in essence studying current conditions and predicting future trends in order to help people prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.

A recent string of articles caught my eye. First, from an article on CNBC, April 21st, 2017: Robots are Now Delivering Food in San Francisco. Next, on Eater, May 17th, 2017: San Francisco Declares War on Food Delivery Robots. Also from May 17th, 2017, this time on technology blog Wired: San Francisco Tries to Ban Delivery Robots Before they Flatten Someone’s Toes.

The first article reports the San Francisco robots in question are run by a company called Marble, founded to re-think the “last mile” of the delivery supply chain. Their solution is meant as a step toward relieving vehicular and courier snarls during the final stage of delivery of small packages and items. The article goes on to refer to companies, such as Amazon, Alphabet, and Uber, which have also been investing this facet of the supply chain.

Following initial roll-out of the automated delivery system there was an offended backlash that follows an unanticipated offense, with calls to ban these small robots. The Eater article pegs the issue as one of insufficient policy paired with infrastructure. San Francisco city supervisor Norman Yee told them: “Our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots. This is consistent with how we operate in the city, where we don’t allow bikes or skateboards on sidewalks.” When asked if he thought robots could safely run in a bike lane, Yee agreed it was something to think about: “Maybe in the future there will be robot lanes.”

It’s true that progress in urban policy integrating “last mile” delivery robots across the United States and internationally is being driven by robot companies that lead planning and policy initiatives, which can then result in a narrow definition of a municipality’s approved specifications that apply exclusively to that company’s product.

But the uproar was strange for a few reasons. First, given the city’s location adjacent to Silicon Valley, San Francisco residents and managers should not be unprepared for the introduction of automated systems to perform mundane tasks. Starwood Aloft hotels have been using a mobile automated system to delivery sundry items such as toiletries to hotel guests since 2014. Silicon Valley company Knightscope manufactures security robots which have been roaming buildings and industrial complexes in the Bay area for at least a year prior to deployment of Marble’s food delivery robots.

Second, as a dense West coast city with progressive urban development policies, it is surprising that San Francisco is resisting the benefits of a potentially-advantageous technological advancement. Delivery robots, especially when automated to follow given paths and arrive at specific locations (very possible using satellite mapping technology), represent a potential solution to a number of traffic headaches. The narrow streets of historic cities are often clogged by delivery trucks, a trend which is on the rise. Millennials in particular continue to invest in the convenience of home-delivered groceries, meal plans, clothing sampling services, and Amazon Prime for everything else.

This human behavior pattern has consequences for the health and function of our cities, and the policy and design response must adjust itself dynamically to accommodate such trends.

It is common in conversations with landscape architects and planners to arrive at mutual agreement about the antiquated views of traffic congestion wherein the cyclical solution is to simply add more lanes. Many praise the benefits of multi-modal transportation planning, transit-oriented development, and walkable complete streets to create healthier cities.

We must ask, however, if these views are becoming as antiquated as the automotive-focused interventions we disparage. Don’t we have technologies that can work now, complementing evolving human behavior, to produce a healthier system?

The landscape architect as futurist may be any of us of different professional specialties. We are, at heart, a profession made up of practitioners who study variations of environmental context and human influence. We have the opportunity to look to the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.

Our lifetimes will see dynamic shifts in the way humans co-evolve with technology. It is time for landscape architects to look creatively upon these changes, and ask with a futurist’s eye: what can this become?

This guest op-ed is by Alison Kelly, ASLA, LEED AP ND, a landscape designer at O’Dell Engineering in Modesto, California. She has presented on culture, landscape, and learning at the Society for Applied Anthropology national conference and the Children’s Outdoor Environments professional practice network (PPN) at the ASLA Annual Meeting.

ASLA Statement on President Trump’s 2018 Budget

Hikers enjoying a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, which was protected through LWCF funds.

ASLA is extremely concerned with President Trump’s proposed federal budget, which makes draconian cuts at a time when our country should be making increased investments in the resilience and health of our communities.

The President’s recommendation to slash the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) by nearly 85 percent from current funding levels—from $400 million to $90 million—is devastating. Such a reduction decimates the nation’s most important conservation and outdoor recreation program that landscape architects access to plan and design community parks.

We are extremely concerned about the proposed 31 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget. It is the most dramatic rollback in the agency’s 47-year history. The proposal purports to allocate $2.3 billion to the Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving fund programs, a $4 million increase. However, the budget also eliminates $498 million from the Department of Agriculture’s Water and Wastewater loan and grant program and instead recommends that rural communities access EPA’s State Revolving Funds, thus leaving State Revolving Funds with a $494 million reduction in funding.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal includes significant cuts to key climate change programs and activities across all agencies, including ceasing all payments to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund and eliminating the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program.

ASLA and its members call on Congress to reject this budget proposal and protect programs and resources that protect our nation’s infrastructure and environment. As the long legislative process continues, we will continue to advocate on behalf of our members and their stewardship of the natural environment.

Our recent actions include the May 15 submittal of a letter signed by nearly 2,000 landscape architects and other supporters urging EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to change course and work to continue federal carbon reduction programs and regulations, fund scientific research and make it accessible to the American people, and honor the United States’ commitment to the Paris Agreement.

This post is by American Society of Landscape Architects’ (ASLA) Executive Vice President and CEO Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA.

The Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities (Part 1)

LiDAR-generated hillshade showing terracing, household remains and field boundaries in present-day Yucatan, Mexico / Journal of Archaeological Science

John Beardsley, director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, opened the Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities symposium in Washington, D.C. with a promise that the invited speakers would explore “the origins and future trajectories of urban landscapes” — shedding light, through case studies spanning millennia, on the complex evolutions and experiences of urban settlements over time.

Two days later, after 13 scholars of archaeology, art, and anthropology had presented their work, Beardsley, asked: “When we look back at these pre-industrial cities, are we seeing what we want to see? I’ve heard a lot about flexibility, resilience, multiplicity, diversity, ecological socialism, self-organization — these are all very contemporary values and things that we want to see in our cities now.” Beardsley posed: “Are we projecting these values back in a mistaken way, or are we excavating earlier adaptations that provide useful lessons for us?”

Tim Murtha, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offered a response: “I think the answer is both. And that’s the hardest thing for an archaeologist to say, but I’m okay saying it because I teach in a landscape architecture department.”

Murtha continued: “What if that’s not a problem? What if that allows us to start thinking about present cities and future cities and exposing those values as part of our archaeological imagination?”

Murtha’s work in the ancient Mayan lowlands has challenged the archaeological imagination of his predecessors, who largely focused on the structural and engineering feats of population centers and treated regional landscapes as peripheral and less significant. Murtha has used LiDAR, a remote sensing technology, and climate and hydrologic modeling to explore regional landscapes from eastern Veracruz to the northern tip of Yucatan (see image above).

He found evidence of intricate and highly-varied patterns of terraces, reservoirs, and field boundaries, seemingly formed in response to their geological surroundings and without reference or connection to the nearest city.

“Households dominated these landscapes in a regionally-expressive mosaic,” Murtha said, suggesting that archaeologists and planners “need to concentrate less on the potential exceptionalism of our places and density-dependent analysis, and pay more attention to the regional narratives of landscapes and households as expressions of coupled human and natural systems.”

Archaeologists are also using LiDAR in Cambodia to enrich our understanding of an ancient landscape that today is dominated by temple architecture. J. B. Chevance, with the Archaeology and Development Foundation’s Phnom Kulen Program in Cambodia, and Christophe Pottier, Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient in Paris, said remote sensing technology coupled with field work has allowed archaeologists to situate the spectacular historic temples of Angkor within a similarly spectacular historic landscape, which over hundreds of years saw deforestation, diversion of rivers, and the construction of hydraulic channels and agricultural fields to serve shifting human settlements.

Chevance’s work focuses on Phnom Kulen, the birthplace and early capital of the Khmer empire, located close to the Angkor World Heritage Site but largely unexplored. Chevance said that for years the archaeological approach to the Khmer empire considered only the remains of monumental architecture, sculpture, and inscriptions. “Studies were therefore mostly oriented toward the elites, religious architecture and religion, whereas the common life and the territorial approach were not relayed.”

Temple of Damrei Krap, Phnom Kulen, Cambodia / Archaeology and Development Foundation

Pottier said the emergence of LiDAR technology in the mid-1990s allowed archaeologists to see beyond the narrative of Angkor urbanism as “a story of boxes and squares,” a narrative that he said was developed largely by architects taken by the geometries of Angkor’s monumental remains.

Pottier instead traced the more recent LiDAR-enabled discoveries of regional networks of roads, canals, rice fields, and small-scale ponds and temples that defined the forms of dispersed population centers, which themselves shifted over hundreds of years, often rebuilding in a way that incorporated sites that had been abandoned but were formerly significant. He contrasted this new understanding of a complex human landscape with the popular vision of Angkor as a city of temples amid a green jungle.

“These are two completely different versions of urbanism and territorial development,” Pottier said. “The vision of Angkor itself is only a matter of how you map it.”

Georges Farhat, a symposium organizer from the University of Toronto, also addressed the role of representation, along with the potential pitfalls of examining ancient cities through a modern Western lens.

“We heard over the course of these two days issues of representation suggesting that what we see defines what we think, and what we are able to visualize will determine what we will be able to understand,” Farhat said. “We also heard about the importance of excavating patterns the way you excavate fossils — it determines what you conclude or draw from the field.”

Timothy Pauketat, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that in his work to understand Cahokia, a pre-historic Native American city in present-day Illinois, he attempts to align his “scientific Western approach” with a sensory one, imagining how the experience of the swampy site along the Mississippi River might have inspired the people who built the waterways, residential neighborhoods, and monumental precincts that defined Cahokian urbanism.

Cahokia Mounds /

Early archaeologists at Cahokia assumed the site was never inhabited by humans, Pauketat said, because of their own inability to imagine that people might select to live among what Charles Dickens described, when he passed through Cahokia’s eroding earthen monuments on an American tour, as “a swamp, the bush, the perpetual chorus of frogs, the rank unseemly growth and the unwholesome steaming earth.”

Pauketat offered: “But what if the auditory affects of the frogs that bedeviled Dickens were positive, entangled with the experiential aspects of a place of fertile soil, life-giving rains, and sweet flavors of an exotic and water-sensitive plant? That it’s quite possibly the pre-urban landscape of this region, with embodied spiritual energies of water and weather and fertility, that might attract people?”

Michael Heckenberger, a professor at University of Florida who studies the experiential aspects of past and present Amazonian building and planning practices, has worked with the indigenous Kuikuro community in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil to uncover pre-Columbian roads that connected a dense network of towns and villages nestled within the Amazon. Heckenberger said that from the scale of the house to the scale of the region, the design of places was in relation and proportion to the human form and physical context, in what he called “a corporeal and relational calculus.”

In describing his ongoing partnership with the Kuikuro, Heckenberger advocated more broadly for dialogue with peoples and places that can offer lessons about the design of settlements that serve human and ecological health.

Priyaleen Singh, at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, advocated the same in her case studies on the disparate development trajectories of Old and New Bhubaneswar in India. Old Bhubaneswar was built from the sixth to ninth centuries C.E. as a pilgrimage center, with distinctive temple architecture, a network of pools, or tanks, and a wealth of open spaces integrated into the urban fabric in the form of courtyards and shade-giving groves. New Bhubaneswar, planned by Otto Koenigsberger in the 1950s, adhered to Western planning practices of the time, separating districts by use and, Singh argues, eschewing the human scale.

Tenth-century temple and open space with newer development in the background, Bhubaneswar, India / Bernard Gagnon

“Natural ecology and cultural ecology were overtly interwoven and expressed in design forms and other cultural expressions of the open spaces in Old Bhubaneswar,” Singh said. “Temple tanks and groves — besides constituting the genius of the place and giving meaning to the landscape — also ensured that nature was both respected and integrated with the everyday life and experience of the people. Traditional design vocabularies encouraged a participatory relationship with nature, encouraging an experiential aesthetics as opposed to a purely visual one.”

Singh pointed in contrast to mono-functional green spaces, slick nature-themed marketing, and the growing dominance of non-native plant species within New Bhubaneswar development. “In New Bhubaneswar, nature and its elements have been reduced to a mere beautification exercise, and image-making has overshadowed the more real ecological demands.”

Read part 2.

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.