Interview with Toody Maher on Using Parks to Build Community

Toody Maher / SF Gate
Toody Maher / SF Gate


Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in Bay Area, California.

In the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California, which is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, you’ve created an exciting model, which combines community development, child development, play, and parks. What are the essential elements of a Pogo Park?

Any public space can be transformed into a Pogo Park. In essence, a Pogo Park is an amazing place, a magical place for children to play. There are five key elements. First of all, a Pogo Park must be staffed. You need someone there who clean the park, welcome folks as they come in, and make it a safe and welcoming gathering place for the community. Second, there needs to be an office there. The third is a rich play environment. We have to get away from plastic, static play equipment. Experts on play talk about how kids need loose parts and environments they can manipulate, so they can build their own things and explore. The key feature of a Pogo Park is a super-rich play environment. The fourth element is just basic amenities — a place to sit in the shade, a bathroom, and running water. And the last is to make it a hub of the community. We have the book mobile, farmer’s market, and visits from the National Park Service who want to show the kids a ranger tour. We’re just the place. We are the community hub.

If you’re knowledgeable about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, that’s the Bible for us. There’s certain things that you can do that are essential, but you can do it 500 or 5,000 ways.

The community were co-designers of Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Park. How did this work?

To give you some background: Elm Playlot was an existing park for 70 years, but it failed. The city has renovated it three times, and the latest in 2009 cost $300,000. We begged the city not to do it, but they went ahead because they had a grant. Within a week, somebody tried to burn it down.

Pogo Park started with a core team of eight: the Elm Playlot Action Committee (EPAC). The first person I met was Carmen Lee, who lives right next door to the park. I just went around knocking on doors and meeting folks. There were people who wouldn’t open the door. I would show up each day and they wouldn’t even say hello. From 2009 to 2016 the composition of EPAC has changed. It went from eight to six to ten to twelve to fourteen to seven. All of the members have deep ties to the Iron Triangle: they were born there, they live there. But the members of the same core team who started at the beginning have been through all seven years of the project.

What’s great is the power of incremental change. We avoided the usual process: the park fails, then you helicopter in, and, in one week’s time, there’s a new park, and then the mayor comes, and you cut the ribbon, and the moment that everyone leaves — the moment the 76-piece marching back leaves — the whole thing goes back to what it was, so nothing is really transformed. As some residents say, you can’t put a mink coat on a skunk. By coming in and putting this thing down, it doesn’t mean lives are going to change. Transformation needs to be deeper.

EPAC started working with the residents to reclaim the park. Before we got our $2 million state park grant to redo the park, I told the team about Burning Man in the Nevada desert, how folks build this mini city in a week. I said: “let’s do Burning Man in the Iron Triangle!” We went to Home Depot and bought a $2,000 3-foot fence and built a fence around Elm Playlot to claim the boundary. We came in each day and cleaned the park, so it was super clean. We brought in a shipping container we got from the Port of Richmond and built a little office inside the shipping container we could open each day. We put out our play materials and made our enriched play space. We rented a porta potty, which we covered in beautiful plants and artwork. And if somebody needed to go to the bathroom, they’d come up to somebody on our staff and we would let them in. Folks would come just to go to the bathroom, because the porta potty was tricked out. We bought the house next to the park for $50,000. And got a $300 fridge off Craigslist and became an official distribution point for the school free summer lunches. We served 9,000 meals one summer. We got into the space and claimed it.

Going back to how to involve the community: Elm Playlot came alive because people from the neighborhood went and worked there each day. They cleaned it, built things, or served as staff. As folks drive by, they could see something was changing. Everybody started to come by because they were like, “What you all doing next? Oh, this so great.” One thing I learned: If the community makes the changes themselves, then the change is deeper and felt more widely.

Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille
Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille

It wasn’t just like there was a one-week charrette. We did a five year one! As the great park designer, Susan Goltsman, FASLA, with MIG in Berkeley, said: “Great playgrounds are in a constant state of change.” They can’t just be static. To be alive, parks need to evolve. Pogo Park has been a living charrette.

Elm Playlot / Pogo Park
Elm Playlot / Pogo Park

How did the process of 3-D prototyping the park design work? And why do you think it was better than the typical approach with charrettes, maps, renderings?

The real language needed to communicate design is the opposite of what you need to understand a landscape architecture plan on paper. With a 3-D model, you get to see what’s coming in life size. You’re actually experiencing it. If we want to put a tree somewhere, we’ll just go out and buy a tree in a five gallon bucket and put it there, so people can actually say, “Oh, a tree’s there.” They can walk around and see spaces.

I’ve noticed that when I’m dealing with some landscape architects and designers, they come out with the dimensions of what something should be right away. They’ll say, “Oh, well, why don’t we put the door at three feet and this at two feet.” And they work all by numbers. But our approach is: “Do not impose a number.” First of all, mark it, and when it feels right, measure. That is the measurement that goes on the paper. So many times when design is done on paper, it looks good on paper, because it’s all math. But when you build it, there’s so many little things that were off. The spacing is usually off. The only way you can really get spacing is to do it.

Pogo Park involved the community in the actual construction of the park, paying neighbors of the park to build it. How did the process of co-developing the park with the community work?

We have put over $1 million in wages and contracts into the Iron Triangle. Everyone expects people who are poor and have no job to come in and volunteer. Everywhere I went, people said: “Oh, Toody, you and your volunteers.” No. Everyone was paid for their contribution.

We were also blessed to partner with Scientific Art Studio, which happens to have a 2-acre fabrication studio six blocks from our park in the Iron Triangle, to build the park. The guy who runs it — Ron Holthuysen — is a world famous designer of children’s play spaces. He’s the bomb. He just did a $3.5 million new playground for the San Francisco Zoo. His belief is that children must be free to run wild and to explore.

Ron helped us figure out how to work with a playground safety inspector. We were building custom-made, artisanal play elements. Every step of the way we made sure we conformed with the safety regulations. He set up a studio for us in his studio where he acted as our training wheels, empowering local people to do it for themselves.

It was this holy trinity. First, we had community residents. Second, we had the city of Richmond, which is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They gave us the green light to do this radical thing: to try and build a park with the community by hand. And, third, we had Ron from Scientific Arts. However, the residents were the most powerful force. All we did was create a system where someone could think up an idea and then just do it. Residents started getting into it, saying things like: “Well, we should put a bench there.” So then we would just go to Ron’s shop and build a bench and bring it back. Residents started gaining a lot of confidence by thinking, doing.

Play element construction / Pogo Park
Play element construction / Pogo Park

The numbers who have been employed with Pogo Park over the past decade is around 110-120 community residents. We’ve had probably another 250 who come and work for two weeks. But we primarily pour our money into our core staff. We have 10 people on the community resident team now that work between 15 hours a week and full-time. And they’re paid between $16 and $22 an hour. Those working full-time have full health, dental, and vision benefits. All of these people have never had insurance before. Pogo Park has definitely helped transform the lives of the key folks on our team. And we now have $1.5 million in contracts to design and build more parks in Richmond, too.

Park construction / Pogo Park
Park construction / Pogo Park

About 25 percent of our team does cleaning and maintenance. It’s a lot of work, because you’re cleaning not only the park, but also the streets around the park. When people come into our block, they can just feel it, because the streets are all clean, and there’s all these trees planted. I mean we clean up. Last year, we had 15,000 kids sign in at our sites. And these kids play hard, so things get broken. You have to replace the wooden planks and other things. When things break things, we take them to a work shop where we have a team. Our maintenance team can also build things.

About 50 percent are employed in running the park. We have a park host who comes in somebody who comes into the office every day. They put out all the play stuff and open up the bathrooms. They’re the ones scheduling all the programs Monday through Saturday. The other 25 percent does outreach and design for The Yellow Brick Road, plants trees, plant trees, and individual and group skills training. They train community members on how to use email, resolve conflicts, speak in public, etc.

How do you generate deep community buy in and involvement where others have failed?

We just show up every day and keep showing up. Most folks come into a community for a year or two and then leave. And then things go back to what they were. So the community doesn’t trust new initiatives, because they too will leave. It’s taken us nine years of work in this neighborhood, showing up Monday through Friday and not leaving, to gain that trust.

Some 77,500 neighborhood kids use Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Parks annually. What do these places try to do about works and what doesn’t in terms of play? And, specifically, what’s needed to create a safe, welcoming playground in a neighborhood that has a lot of crime?

If you go into any of these neighborhoods, the first thing is you have got to staff the park. What makes it safe is there’s someone who’s there watching out to make sure the park is clean, safe, and welcoming. Second, parks must be “bespoke,” custom made for the particular neighborhood, so they can then be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. The park has got to have soul. Most of these new plastic playgrounds that are plopped in from a catalogue just don’t have soul.

Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park
Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park

The design of the playground has to be generated from the inside out. The community has to be involved and figure out how it’s going to weave into the neighborhood. Children’s play is very complicated. It’s the mother’s breast milk of healthy development. Parks departments typically put in static play equipment that’s only good for physical play. You go up a ladder and slide down the slide and then go on the swing. But there’s all kinds of play: cognitive play, linguistic play, and imaginative, creative play. We have to create playgrounds that meet all the play needs of kids, not just physical needs. That’s why we say Pogo Park is an enriched play environment.


How have the new parks helped resolve community conflict and build inter-community trust? And what do you think still needs to happen?

Parks provide a community space for every human being on the planet. We’re social beings and gravitate toward public spaces where we can be with other people. Just claiming and holding this space, it becomes a sacred watering hole for the community. That has helped build the trust of the community, because it’s a place where people can actually connect in a real way with other residents and families.

You can’t just put the bones of the park down. You can’t just come into a neighborhood like the Iron Triangle and just plop something down and leave. You have bones but you also have to spirit. The spirit is programming, which makes the park come to life.

Now you’re rethinking another form of community space, streets. A project now in the works is the Yellow Brick Road, a “safe, green and clean” route for walking and biking that connects neighborhood schools, parks, transportation, shopping. Pogo Park organized another preview of a full scale 3-D prototype for the community to try out. What is your approach for designing, building, and maintaining this Yellow Brick Road?

Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park

We used the same 3-D modeling language we used for the parks, but translated it into the streets. We had to slow down traffic on the corners of the park, as we had some 15,000 people sign into the park last year, including thousands of kids. We worked with some of the top transportation engineers to design a new roundabout. We figured out what the dimensions needed to be and then mocked up a 3-D roundabout model. In the middle of the roundabout there is a hand-carved, eight-foot-tall totem pole the Pogo Park community team carved. Over two days, we let the neighborhood, police, and fire fighters actually drive through it.

We’ve spoken to others who have done 3-D models out of the street, but they never opened theirs to actual traffic. Neighbors could see what is going to be built rather than see it on a piece of paper. They could then add their thoughts right away. The community team, who are people the neighborhood knows, facilitated. Many neighbors, police, and fire fighters came up and thanked us so much for this. The 3-D models really got the community and city involved in a new way. We received a grant from the California department of transportation, and the Yellow Brick Road opened in January.

Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road totem pole and roundabout / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org

 

Pierre Bélanger Examines the Mining Industry at Venice Biennale

extraction-exhibit
A visitor to Extraction watches a video displayed in the ground / copyright Laurian Ghinitoiu, via Arch Daily

One of the first national architecture pavilions to be curated by a landscape architect debuted last month at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The Canadian exhibit, entitled Extraction, is curated by landscape architect Pierre Bélanger, ASLA, who is also associate professor at Harvard University. Ryerson University ecologist and landscape planner Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, also worked on the project, along with architecture firm Rvtr, design firm Opsys, and the multimedia firm Studio Blackwell.

Extraction examines Canada’s role in extracting the resources that fuel our cities. “Canada has become a global resource empire. The preeminent extraction nation on the planet,” Bélanger said, citing its 20,000 mining projects now underway.

Visitors to the exhibit are invited to look through a hole in the ground, where they see a solid-gold survey stake planted at the intersection of the English, French, and Canadian pavilions. Beyond the stake, a video plays, displaying the history of Canada’s resource extraction through 800 images from 800 contributors in 800 seconds.

Bélanger and his team were initially warned that visitors to the exhibit would begrudge prostrating themselves to view the film, so “we milled a beautiful ½-inch surface of Corian that we keep clean and made a pillow for people to kneel on as a way to engage the project. Many people started laying down on the ground and relaxing.”

A visitor to Extraction watches a video displayed in the ground / copyright Laurian Ghinitoiu, via Arch Daily
A visitor to Extraction watches a video displayed in the ground / copyright Laurian Ghinitoiu, via Arch Daily

Architect Bruce Kuwabara told Bélanger that Extraction “engages us in questions of responsibility and ethics in the face of an overwhelming challenge — to reset the relationships of power so we might create a more transparent and equitable world.”

Bélanger explained that most Biennale visitors suffer from “interior exhibition fatigue,” and that the fresh air and natural light were in part responsible for the large crowds Extraction has drawn. Furthermore, “we specifically under-designed the project and augmented the texture and interaction in order to engage the senses in ways that appeal to a much larger audience than drawings, models, or writings on the wall.”

He added: “exhibitions at the Biennale are expected to be about the celebration of national architecture, located inside of a national building belonging to a specific nation. Our involvement as landscape architects, ecologists, planners, and urbanists makes it unique.”

Indeed, the Venice Biennale is a valuable opportunity to share landscape architecture as well. “The basic element of land — in all its political, ecological, social, and technological dimensions — is often overlooked. We need to make land relevant to pressing questions and critical matters of urbanism and a very large audience of professionals and the public.”

Extraction will be on display in Venice through November 27 and then proceed onto a Canadian tour through 2017. A book of essays concerning Extraction is also in the works, co-edited by Bélanger and Lister. Learn more online or by following the project on twitter @1partperbillion.

Parks + Community = Innovation

parks2
Parks Without Borders – Before / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks Without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks Without Borders  – After / NYC Parks and Recreation

How can communities become more deeply involved in the process of creating parks? How can parks reflect communities’ best vision of themselves? Exciting projects that answer these questions were discussed at the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference on the “nature of communities.”

Communities’ desire for improved park access can result in simple yet effective innovations. Mitchell Silver, the new parks and recreation commissioner in New York City, is piloting a new approach — Parks Without Borders — that aims to remove physical barriers, like chain-link fences, from the city’s parks. The parks and recreation department asked residents which parks would benefit most from improved accessibility. Some 6,000 New Yorkers responded with 692 parks and then 8 parks in all boroughs were selected to test the concept. In these pilots, the parks department will soon test out more accessible entrances, signage, and edges, and better incorporate park-adjacent spaces into parks. As Silver explained, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, said that “the sidewalk next to the park is actually the outer edge of the park.” 150 years later the NYC parks department is taking these words to heart to remove barriers to parks in communities that want greater openness and equity.

Once communities empower themselves, they can also create parks that no designer could make. For Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks and recreation commissioner and now a senior executive at the Trust for Public Land, “cooperative, community-based processes can lead to new and rejuvenated parks” that break down barriers and also reflect local arts and culture. As an example, he pointed the QueensWay in Queens, New York, “the people’s High Line,” which will eventually run through the most “diverse community on the planet,” where some 100 different ethnic groups will line the route. Trust for Public Land, DLANDstudio Architecture & Landscape Architecture, and others are working with the Friends of the QueensWay and the communities to turn 3.5 miles of abandoned railroad track into a “cultural greenway, in addition to a system of green infrastructure.

QueensWay plan / Friends of QueensWay
QueensWay plan / Friends of QueensWay

In Richmond, California, a poor community of about 15,000 just north of Oakland, there is a high level of gun violence; “in fact, it’s the 7th most dangerous community in the U.S,” said Toody Maher, the founder of Pogo Park. The city plopped down $300,000 worth of playground equipment in a local park, which locals then “tagged” with spray paint and tried to burn down. Where others would throw up their hands, Maher saw an opportunity to design a new park with the community. “We realized we needed to build the park from the inside out. Instead of just hiring a landscape architect, the community built a 3D model, actually measuring out in the space what they wanted. ” With a $2 million grant from the state parks department, Maher and the Pogo Park neighborhood steering committee hired neighbors of the park to build it, even hiring local graffiti artists to become park artists. “Pogo Park is community-designed, built, and installed. It’s now a green oasis that radiates change out. Everyone wants to live near the park.”

Pogo Park / Richie Unterberger
Pogo Park / Richie Unterberger

Jennifer Toy, ASLA, co-founder of Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), walked us through another bottom-up community park project in North Shore, California, farm country in the Coachella Valley. Toy spent about a year just listening in the community, a 3,400-person ghost town “on the periphery of the periphery,” a place at the edge of the shrinking Salton Sea, which reeks of decaying fish. While the town received some financing to create a small 1/8-acre park, Toy learned that park didn’t meet their needs, so the community and her team co-developed a plan for a 5-acre park over the course of some 150 open meetings over multiple years. The result of all this community building is a park design that features “a shaded pavilion, a restroom/bike shop building, soccer field, skate plaza, sport court, playground, walking paths, and native plantings.” The park is expected to open later this year.

North Shore design concept / KDI
North Shore design concept / KDI

Lastly, artists can also act as agents of innovation in communities and get people to see themselves in a new light. Streets, another form of public space, can become linear parks that connect people. Seitu Jones, an artist based in St. Paul, Minnesota, creates artistic interventions around the food system. He believes any artist working in a community “must leave it more beautiful than they found it.” With Create, which launched in 2015, Jones made St. Paul more beautiful by creating a temporary half-mile-long public space in the middle of a street, featuring a half-mile-long table with healthy foods. It took some two years for Jones to reach out to all the communities, bring them to the table, and get the approvals to shut down the street.

Create, St. Paul / Walker Art Center
Create, St. Paul / Walker Art Center

Jones brought diverse communities “who had forgotten how to cook” together to learn and share.

A Vision for Equitable Community Development

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

In the 1960s, amid rampant gang violence, drug crime, and white flight, Arthur Hall, a dancer and choreographer, created the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the poor and mostly African American community of Fairchild-Hartranft in north Philadelphia. The center successfully taught black culture, art, dance, and music in a safe space for decades. Then, in the 1980s, Lily Yeh, an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, got involved and grew the center into a neighborhood arts and cultural hub, the internationally-renowned Village of Arts & Humanities, which now teaches over 400 local students art, advocacy, and leadership after school every day.

Aviva Kapust, the current executive director of the Village, gave a tour of the project during the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference called the Nature of Communities. As we spent the morning walking through the network of 15 parks and plazas, which total some 15,000 square feet across multiple city blocks, Kapust explained that the Village’s public spaces have become “designated safe zones in the neighborhood.” While there is still high levels of crime in this part of Germantown, “it doesn’t happen here.” And while nearby painted houses are often “tagged” by local artists, who leave their unique signature, the murals that oversee the public spaces never are.

Yeh and the surrounding community slowly transformed vacant lots into public parks and plazas. Kapust said Yeh had no idea how to create a park, so she engaged the neighborhood kids, who then brought in their families. “Together, they undertook a process of co-creation,” learning as they went how to plant trees, mold cement benches, set sidewalks, create mosaics — building community all the while.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village Heart, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Kapust believes the space works so well because it “imports symbols from other cultures and projects then back out again.”

But the imagery Yeh selected also purposefully “signals guardianship.” Angels oversee pathways; spirit animals watch over the public spaces. “There is an intentional mesh of spiritual messages into something universal.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Yeh just started building these spaces without city government permission, but now they actually own the parks and plazas, which brings its own set of challenges, including financial liability. And simply maintaining the spaces — not developing them — costs some $70,000 per year.

Meditation Park, which was created in the early 90s, is something Gaudi would have loved. A river is formed through mosaic tiles. Colors reflect the Islamic and West African cultures found in the neighborhood. James “Big Man” Maxton, a former drug addict, became the village’s long-time operations director and mosaic artist. The result of his work and many other volunteers is a “beautiful plaza, like something you would happen upon in Barcelona.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

A few doors down, Magical Garden is in the process of being revamped as a “natural habitat for urban wildlife.” Annuals are being replaced with perennials, and there will be natural stormwater management systems. Next door is a quarter-acre urban farm with permaculture plots, a solar-powered aquaponic system, and outdoor pizza oven, where culinary education and demonstrations are held.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Magical Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Memorial Park, once a vacant lot, honors those who have died in the neighborhood to drug violence or addiction or lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The now-shuttered neighborhood high school had the highest number of alumni to die in Vietnam than any other school — some 64 students. Dream totems, made with a West African artist, invite visitors to remember.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Memorial Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Interestingly, not all the parks have been successful. Some of the ones farthest away from the village center are underused. Lion’s Park, for example, may be divested as it has become an “overgrown hazard,” said Kapust.

Lion's Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Lion’s Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

As gentrification creeps north, can there be a positive future for this unique arts and cultural neighborhood? Kapust says the Village is looking 25-30 years ahead and trying to figure out whether they should use “arts and culture to generate community economic development, or aim for community economic development, using arts as a tool; they are two separate things.” She added that whatever plays out, “we want to keep the needs of the people in this neighborhood at the forefront.”

Kapust wants to reach out to equitable developers as well, taking them a vision and plan for maintaining the character of the community. “The theory is 100 families is a manageable group. We could support those 100 families with jobs and their own homes for 100 years.” Those 100 families, who would take up about 5 blocks, can then maintain the neighborhood culture, support local shops, and create leverage. “It’s basically socialism,” Kapust laughed, or at least an expanded neighborhood cooperative. To make this happen, a workable financing model needs to be connected to the right non-profit developer.

The Legacy of Jacques Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Psychology of Color

Tiffany's blue / Tiffany's
Tiffany’s blue / Tiffany’s

“Color is like a mind-altering drug. It has the power to make us feel good, change perceptions, and create new connections,” said Laurie Pressman, who is in charge of Pantone’s Color Institute, at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. She urged designers to apply “color thinking to improve design.” But to do this, designers must first understand the brand they are designing for and the target audiences they hope to reach. Before going for the Pantone color book, they must answer the questions: “What does the brand stand for? What message does it want to convey?” Furthermore, to succeed in their quest to find the perfect color, designers must “throw away all the old color rules and use unique colors. Be bold and resonate with your audience and the broader culture.”

“Color defines our world. It makes up some 80 percent of the visual experience. The colors we see have both a psychological and physiological effect on us.” Brand colors are experienced in a largely intuitive sense — “just 5 percent of our reaction is rational.” So for any brand, selecting a color is one of the most important decisions they will make. “With infinite choices, brands really have about 3 seconds to grab attention.” Some firms have had incredible success with unique colors. Among luxury brands, Hermes’ orange color has become as recognizable as its logo. Tiffany’s robins-egg blue (seen above) is so recognizable that “you don’t even need to need to see the brand to know it’s them.”

While the psychology of color is always changing and people create new associations with both new and old colors, colors still have some essential qualities:

Blue is the dominant color and most universally accepted. It’s associated with respite and peacefulness, tranquility and constancy, dependability and trust. Many corporations use blue because it says “integrity and competence.” Blue is also about connecting, which is why a lot of information and communication technology firms, like Facebook, Twitter, Safari, and Skype, use it. Darker blues relay solidness and authority. Baby blues are sleep related, which is why Ritz Carlton’s recent brand revamp features this color. Electric blues are fresh and modern, with high-energy intensity. These colors appeal to young people because they read as “tech-savvy and forward thinking. It’s a signal color for the younger generation.”

Ritz Carlton's new brand / Under Consideration
Ritz Carlton’s new color palette / Under Consideration

The human eye can distinguish between 8-10 million greens because our earliest ancestors had to be able to easily see predators in the forest and savannah. But green relaxes and soothes us. Green’s refreshing and restorative and connotes youth and growth. Many skincare firms use green packaging to relay a sense of youth, regardless of whether their products actually make you look younger. Some firms use green to try to appeal healthier. In the European Union, McDonalds has rolled out a green logo to try to appear more healthy and sustainable, which are important to European consumers. Deeper greens are trustworthy and traditional, while teals are tasteful and confident, and light greens represent sanctuary.

McDonalds in Greece / DLG Studio
McDonalds in Greece / DLG Studio

Purple is associated with wealth and royalty. According to Wikipedia, “purple was the color worn by Roman magistrates; it became the imperial color worn by the rulers of the Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, and later by Roman Catholic bishops. Similarly in Japan, the color is traditionally associated with the Emperor and aristocracy.” Purple, Pressman said, is an “artful balancing act between red and blue and can convey many messages.” In the 196os, the counter culture used purple. Think Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. David Bowie used purple to subvert authority, changing the color’s meaning for Glam Rock. Prince took a similar course with Purple Rain. Purple is a great “seamless” color that allows designers to meld into other shades. “It’s dependable, authoritative, but capable of transformation.” The BBC now uses purple for its logo.

Purple Rain / Loud and Clear UK
Purple Rain / Loud and Clear UK

Red is connected with blood and life itself. “It’s riveting and dramatic. It has an immediate effect and muscles out all other colors, so you have to be careful using it.” Red can be associated with evil and danger but also passion and romance. “It’s the most accepted bright color and crosses cultural barriers.” Red is high energy; we respond to it with our adrenal glands. “Just looking at red speeds our metabolism by 15 percent.” Red and black together send a strong psychological message of vitality and virility. Deeper reds are rich and refined and signify luxury.

Pink is playful, bold, and youthful, while light pink is sweet and innocent. “Interestingly, pink used to be the color for boys.” After World War II, pink came into its own as a color for the newly empowered female consumer. “Pink was imposed on women by our culture.” Think of the pink Cadillac for “the lady of the house.” Pink is now the color of breast cancer awareness. But neon pink is a bit tougher, used now used by womens rights protesters. And Pressman thinks this tougher pink is slowly becoming more male again. Firms like T Mobile, AirBNB, and Taco Bell are now using shades of dark pink.

Example of "protest pink" in Chicago / Red alert politics
Example of “protest pink” in Chicago / Red alert politics

Yellow has sparkle, heat, and vitality. It is connected with intellectual curiosity, and quick, clear decisions. It’s also frequently used in brands meant to appeal to kids. Pressman explained how Pantone worked closely with the producers of the film Minions to find the exact shade of yellow that kids would like the most. “We sifted through all these yellows with them.” She also said it was no surprise that Pharrell chose yellow for his song Happy, as it’s a “hopeful, optimistic color.” Beyond being kid-friendly though, yellow is also the most reflective color and attention grabbing. Yellow and black together are the single most visible color combinations.

Minions / Universal Pictures
Minions / Universal Pictures

Brown means stability, reliability, longevity. When UPS moved to a brown color palette, it quickly became the number-one package delivery service provider. “Brown is about returning to basics.” Pressman said shades that would have been seen as too dry and earthy 20 years ago are now luxurious. See Gucci brown.

Gucci packaging / Precious packaging UK
Gucci packaging / Precious packaging UK

White connotes innocence, purity, simplicity, and silence. It can be used to create a sense of pristine cleanliness and freshness. Many firms use white for cleaning products. Apple has used it to great effect to create a sense that their products are easy to use.

Black is empowering, and relates to both authority and submission. Black and gold is the most opulent color combination. Black and italics together especially connote luxury.

Orange is a symbol of fruitfulness but, like red, must be used sparingly, as it can easily overwhelm. It’s associated with vibrancy and promotes socialization and communication. Deeper orange relate to strength and authority, while corals grab attention. For many decades, orange was associated with fast food chains or Halloween, but now it’s globally accepted. Oranges, said Mikel Circus, who leads conceptual design and flavors for Firmenich, are also closely connected with flavor. So many Pantone oranges are named after citruses, for good reason. “We see orange and it’s a visual cue for a taste and smell.”

Circus and Pressman walked us through their predictive tools for anticipating future colors. Colors that we see today are actually about four years in the making. Circus explained that colors most often start with “inventors” in the world of technology, high design, and street fashion, then are picked up by “translators,” and then “transmitters” like Pantone that forecast the new colors. These new colors are then picked up by “early adopters,” like automobile companies, perfumiers, and fashion designers. Only then do they make it into advertisements in fashion magazines and are proclaimed as the hot new color by these magazines’ editors. These colors are then produced by all kinds of manufacturers, who spread these colors to the mainstream. “The street is a major source of innovation.”

Trend spotters like Circus and Pressman showed how a particular shade of orange — Flame Orange, PMS 1655 — spread from the streets to the mainstream in about four years. By 2012, it had become “Tangerine Tango,” a shade that is friendly, uplifting, playful, and vital. Focus groups reflected on the color and thought it was high in terms of “health, authenticity, and simplicity.” Understanding the values associated with the color among certain target audiences, Circus and Pressman can then help firms use the color to create products these consumers will buy. “We package a dream, but rely on consumers” to tell us what that dream is.

1655 / Pantone
1655 / Pantone

Circus and Pressman told designers to apply some key principles when working with color: “dig in new lands; think like an outsider; and define emotional touch points.” But they reiterated that designers must “understand the psychology of color first before applying it to a brand.” The end-goal should really be a “consumer-designed product.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 29)

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Le Caveau by Christian Poules is a four-sided room with walls made of stones contained within steel frames / Dezeen

Installations for Quebec Garden Festival to Include Pavilion and Suspended Cone – Dezeen Magazine, 2/17/16
“A shadowy room with gabion walls and a suspended canopy made of wooden slats are among the winners of a juried competition to design installations for this year’s International Garden Festival, in Quebec, Canada.”

Contested Landscapes: 9 Public Re-Appropriations of Urban Infrastructure Architizer, 2/18/16
“In cities around the world, space that was once fully given over to utilitarian functions such as highway interchanges, elevated rail lines, waterways and streets are being wrestled into the public domain for the use of the pedestrian.”

The Salt Season Metropolis, 2/23/16
“This mixture increases winter road safety, melting ice and providing needed friction on slippery surfaces, but its application also produces a number of negative side effects, including a very toxic impact on plant life adjacent to roadways.”

Arizona Bill Would Kill Licensing Requirements for a Host of Professionals, From Yoga Instructors to Geologists The Arizona Republic, 2/25/16
“Todd Briggs is at the height of his career as a landscape architect. After years at a larger firm, he started his own business. But he fears his career in Arizona may now be in jeopardy.”

Two Downtown L.A. Parks and the Tricky Task of Designing Them to Best Serve the CityThe Los Angeles Times, 2/25/16
“In the spring of 1985, Jack Smith wrote a column for this newspaper with the following headline: ‘Can Downtown L.A. Survive Its Own Heady Prosperity?'”

An Obstacle Path to a Seamless Tel Aviv Bike Lane Network Haaretz, 2/27/16
“Growing bike use in Tel Aviv creates new challenges; whole areas of the city are unserved by bike paths, and the existing network is barely connected to paths in adjoining towns.”

Alan Ward’s Luminous Landscapes

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts / copyright Alan Ward
Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts / copyright Alan Ward

“Someone once asked the nature photographer Ansel Adams, ‘why are there no people in your photographs?’,” said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., at the opening of Luminous Landscapes, a new exhibition featuring the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, a principal at Sasaki Associates. “Adams replied that there are always two people in his photographs — the photographer and the viewer.” Piedmont-Palladino added that in Ward’s photography of landscape architecture, there is always a third unseen person: the landscape architect. The exhibition covers landscape works from before 1900, “before the profession of landscape architecture,” then the period from 1900 to World War II, and, lastly, post-war modern and contemporary landscapes.

Ward said photography is his second career, but his decades-long immersion in this art form is symbiotic with his day-job, which is planning and design. His first photograph, taken back in 1978 with 30 pounds of equipment, including an unwieldy tripod, was of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see image above). The cemetery, which features prominently in the first part of the exhibition, opened in 1831, so it even predates Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park. It was one of the first picturesque Romantic landscapes in America, and Ward’s photograph similarly evokes that style’s wild feel.

The exhibition features Ward’s black and white photography, which he seems to prefer to color. As he explained, “color photography can just have too much information. Black and white helps simplify and also abstract the forms in the landscape designs.” Ward mostly takes his black and white photos in the early morning or late afternoon in order to capture the “very soft light and not over-expose.” He looks for ways to “put all the information together into a coherent image” and create a story of a landscape defined by both stark contrasts and subtle shifts of tone. Capturing all these complex layers, Ward says, is made possible through black and white, which is best at isolating the effect of light on the landscape.

Perugino view, early morning / copyright Alan Ward
Perugino view, early morning / copyright Alan Ward

Color photography, Ward added, is “often treated at face value, like reality.” But all photography, color or black and white, is highly manipulated to achieve correct tones and sought-after representations. All of photography plays with the idea of what is real. “Photography is not quite a lie, but not quite the truth. There is a lot of abstraction.”

Leaving the heavy camera behind in favor of a Canon Mach 2, Ward today contemplates the challenges of digital photography. The old camera forced photographers to be very deliberate in setting up shots, but now with a digital camera, “most take dozens of photographs and figure one will come out well,” he laughed. “Digital photography may diminish your looking and framing.” It’s important, Ward said, to continue to apply “rigorous seeing and visualization” when using a digital camera.

As we wander over to the last room filled with the modern and contemporary landscapes, we reach the photographs that made Ward so well-known among landscape architects — his shots of Dan Kiley’s Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana. Because the garden wasn’t open to the public then, most designers only got to experience the site through Ward’s photographs. Seeing Ward’s consideration of the garden for the first time, I began to understand why so many contemporary landscape architects find the landscape so appealing. Kiley took traditional French garden forms, like allees of trees and rectilinear arrangement of hedges, and made them modern. But it’s Ward’s photographs of them, with his Modernist framing, that further “amplifies the design.”

Miller Garden / copyright Alan Ward
Miller Garden / copyright Alan Ward

Ward riffed on why photography can amplify the design in some landscapes and not others. He argued that Olmsted’s picturesque Central Park is so hard to shoot because the curved paths and vast meadows recede away from you, proving too elusive for the photographer to capture. The totality of the experience is somehow beyond representation. But modern landscape’s bold shapes and orthogonal forms seem to be only heightened by the framing of the photographer. “The bold use of geometry lends itself to powerful images.” Ward said that taking those photographs helped him understand what Kiley set out to achieve, and that understanding greatly influenced his own designs.

Piedmont-Palladino added later that one can see a great difference between architecture that predates photography and architecture from the era of photography, perhaps speaking to the influential role of photography in shaping our expectations of the built environment. Ward, who started out as an architecture student and first took photographs of buildings, said still to this day, the ideal architectural photograph shows sharp light cutting across a building facade — quite different from his “soft light” used to capture landscapes. Those shards of light are now often found in actual building designs; just look at Daniel Libeskind’s work.

One question the exhibition brought up: What is the role of fine black and white photography today? It can now be considered an ancient art form when compared with today’s iPhone and Instagram-generated ephemera. Piedmont-Palladino discussed the ubiquity of Apple’s new advertisements lauding the photographs taken with its latest iPhone, which make anonymous and interchangeable the person who actually made the image. She questioned whether the technology — the phone camera — mattered as much as the photographer, “the person with the great eye,” who makes the photograph possible. In the era of instant, throw-away photography, what happens to the appreciation of what Ward achieves?

Blue Steps (Birch Walk) / copyright Alan Ward
Blue Steps (Birch Walk) / copyright Alan Ward

And if black and white or even color photography doesn’t quite tell the truth, does another representational art form get us closer to the experience of a landscape? What about video, used more and more to convey both idealized and real landscapes? In the future, will we go to exhibitions of landscape video art, which can better capture landscape change and sound and may have new resonance in our multimedia world? Or will we continue to delve further into abstraction, with online collections of landscape Instagram or Vine works, just as there are now collections featuring animated GIFs from the 1990s?

The most reasonable conclusion may be that all media are “not quite the truth.” And, as Piedmont-Palladino said, “perhaps the truth isn’t what we are after.”

The exhibition runs through September 5. If not in the area, check out Ward’s book, American Designed Landscapes: A Photographic Interpretation.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 1 – 15)

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Rooftop Garden in Dumbo, NYC / Architectural Digest

Can a Professionally Designed Garden Add Value to Your Home? The Huffington Post, 1/4/15
“This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Capability Brown – the landscape architect renowned for designing over 170 country house estates and gardens during the 18th century. His elegant style of undulating parkland and serpentine lakes can still be seen at dozens of locations, including Blenheim Palace and Stowe.”

See a Rooftop Garden in Brooklyn Inspired by the High Line Architectural Digest, 1/6/15
“Few cities in the world have real estate as expensive as New York’s. For its millions of residents, the idea of certain amenities, such as a private garden—must be quickly abandoned. Yet one apartment building in Brooklyn’s trendy Dumbo neighborhood is creatively changing all of that.”

The New Dolores Park Will Be Pristine—But Can It Last? Curbed, 1/7/15
“It was another beautiful morning in Dolores Park, accompanied by the soothing sound of jackhammers. City officials—including Mayor Ed Lee, Supervisor Scott Wiener, and Dolores Park’s Project Manager Jacob Gilchrist—went along on a preview hard hat tour (sans hard hats—it’s mostly just grass out there, after all) of the park’s south end to show off the final phase of the park’s $20.5 million renovation.”

To Preserve and Protect: Working with ArboristsMetropolis, 1/7/15
“As landscape architects we love trees! Be they pre-existing or newly planted, trees are often the backbone to a site design. Mature, statuesque trees add invaluable character to a place and are often a site’s greatest asset or attraction.”

Field Mighty Real The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/11/15
“Once a quarry, then a landfill, the property at Circle Acres Nature Preserve in the Montopolis neighborhood of Austin was purchased by Ecology Action of Texas with the goal of transforming the site into a nature preserve and park.”

Let’s Talk Water Planetizen, 1/12/15
“It is important to note that landscape architects have been leaders in sustainable design since long before it became a hot topic. Environmental stewardship is a core value of the profession, and designing with water in a responsible and beautiful manner is what we do.”

A Temporary Playground Offers “Light Therapy” in Wintry Montreal

Impulse / Image © Ulysse Lemerise
Impulse / © Ulysse Lemerise

In winter in the northern hemisphere, night falls early. Way up north in Montreal, Canada, the sun leaves the sky at 4.30. To deal with the onset of winter doldrums, Montreal started Luminothérapie or “Light Therapy,” an innovative public art event that brings light, music, and fun to the streets. In the Place Des Festivals, the feature attraction of this year’s Luminothérapie is Impulse by landscape architecture firm Lateral Office, CS Design, and EGP Group, which features 30 giant, light-filled seesaws, backed by wall-projected video art. It’s a temporary “illuminated playground” for kids and adults.

Impulse / © Ulysse Lemerise
Impulse / © Ulysse Lemerise

 

Impulse / © Ulysse Lemerise
Impulse / © Ulysse Lemerise

Sitting on the ends of the seesaws and kicking off starts the LED light show and sounds. The intensity of the seesawing is reflected by the intensity of the light and tonality of the sounds the structures give off. So the seesaws’ light and sound will differ from player to player. The organizers told Dezeen, “Impulse is an urban installation that renews itself for every different audience. Each person becomes, while on the seesaws, the player of a novel instrument.”

In the same district, nine wall-projected video and sound art pieces are running simultaneously. The pieces show angular architectural forms, pieces of video games, or, simply, bright bands of color, transforming building facades into new nighttime experiences.

Symmetry by Irregular and Mitchell Akiyama / Martine Doyon
Symmetry by Irregular and Mitchell Akiyama / Martine Doyon

Chantal Rossi, Ville de Montréal Associate Councillor Culture, Heritage and Design, told ArchDaily: “Every year, we are eager to give Montrealers a new creative winter experience. Luminothérapie’s public installations transform our relationship with the city, beautify it, and give it a wonderful, friendly touch. Luminothérapie also keeps Montreal shining bright around the world as a hub of interactive art.”

Try out Impulse through the end of January. See more photos.