There were so many great books this year that honing in on just ten favorites was too challenging. Whether you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or one for yourself to delve into, we have some options. Here’s The Dirt‘s top 15 books of 2016, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:
Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change (Timber Press, 2016)
Larry Weaner, one of the world’s top meadow designers, and Thomas Christopher have created a reference book on ecological design for gardeners and landscape designers and architects. They write: “By following ecological principles, we can have landscapes that are alive with color, friendly to local wildlife, and evolve over time—with much less work and effort.”
Environmentalism of the Rich (MIT Press, 2016)
Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, asks the hard questions: is environmentalism, as it’s practiced in the developed word, failing? Is the mainstream environmental movement, with its focus on incremental gains, failing the planet? Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow, Worldwatch Institute, writes that the book “is required reading for anyone wanting to help ram the movement off its current dead-end path and build a new deep green movement.”
Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Liverlight, 2016)
In his latest book, renowned biologist and author E.O. Wilson makes the case for both preserving and restoring half of the Earth, which he believes is possible if we set aside some of the richest places of biodiversity on land and in the oceans. Read The Dirt review.
The Long, Long Life of Trees (Yale University Press, 2016)
Fiona Stafford, a professor who focuses on romantic poetry at Oxford University, has published a lyrical volume on the history of seventeen common trees, including ash, apple, pine, oak, cypress, and willow. She delves into history, paying homage to important specimens from the past, and also explains trees’ critical role in the future fight against climate change.
Nature and Cities: The Ecological Imperative for Urban Planning and Design (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2016)
In their new book, editors Frederick Steiner, FASLA, George Thompson, and Armando Carbonell have made complex ideas about urban ecological design incredibly accessible. They make a convincing argument that “ecological literacy” is an “essential base” for anyone involved in urban planning and design today. There are 17 thought-provoking essays from leading landscape architects and planners from around the world.
Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (Jewish Museum, 2016)
The Jewish Museum in New York City has put together the definitive book on the influential Brazilian landscape architect and artist. In addition to designing more than 2,000 gardens, Burle Marx created paintings, drawings, tile mosaics, sculpture, textile design, jewelry, theater costumes, and more.
Toward an Urban Ecology: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture (The Monacelli Press, 2016)
Kate Orff, ASLA, and her team at SCAPE have created a beautiful book with engaging full-page color photography that delves into Breakwaters, their Rebuild by Design project in Staten Island, and others. The goal of their projects is to “bring together social and ecological systems to sustainably remake our cities and landscapes.” They describe the book as “part monograph, part manual, part manifesto.”
Site, Sight, Insight: Essays on Landscape Architecture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
Landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, who has just retired from University of Pennsylvania, collects twelve of his recent essays in one book. He takes the reader on an intellectual ride, explaining the ways we perceive landscapes, and in turn asking us to examine our own baggage when viewing them, so that we may gain greater insights into landscapes’ true meaning and our own emotions.
Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House, 2016)
In this new collection of the short writings and speeches of Jane Jacobs, one of the most influential thinkers on the built environment, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have done readers a great service. They’ve brought together the best of this brilliant autodidact’s arguments for why planners and designers must never forget the importance of small-scale diversity given it results in interesting cities created, first and foremost, for people. Read The Dirt review.
Water Infrastructure: Equitable Deployment of Resilient Systems(Columbia University, 2016)
Developed for the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, S. Brye Sarte and Morana M. Stipisic, with the Sherwood Institute and Columbia University Urban Design Lab, have created a well-organized guide to resilient green infrastructure for developing-world cities. There are smart solutions for water pollution, climate change, and multiple types of flooding, with real-world examples.
Wild by Design (Island Press, 2016)
A leading advocate of the “wild” landscape movement, landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, explains how she carefully balances ecological conservation and restoration with a strong sense of design. Ruddick is the 2013 winner of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. Learn more about Ruddick and the book.
Also, worth knowing: buying these books through The Dirt or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s fantastic book store.
Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes there are mysteries in our landscapes that defy explanation. In an otherworldly session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, he bypassed the usual scientific explanations, delving into mythology, mysticism, conspiracies, and irrationality. “Have you been alone in the woods and felt some strange presence? What the hell is that?,” he asked.
Sullivan wants to find out where these ideas about the landscape come from. In the early 1920s in the United Kingdom, amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins came up with the theory of ley lines, which he believed were underlying alignments of landscape forms. And in 1969, author John Mitchell revived the idea in his New Age book The View Over Atlantis, which explored the “hidden currents of the landscape.”
These ideas aren’t new. Chinese Feng Shui practitioners in the East have long associated the landscape with unseen energy flows. In ancient Western mythology, nature’s power has a prominent role. “The woods were once the sacred domain of the gods and goddesses. Apollo had a sacred grove, and Zeus, a prophetic oak.” The Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece sat on a tripod stool over a crack in the earth, “breathing fumes from the earth’s core” when issuing her prophecies. In Ireland, there were sacred wells, which were portals to the underworld. “Today, we throw coins into wishing wells. Why is that?”
Like Australian aborigines — with their “dream time that enables them access to a parallel reality” — landscape architects can use dreams to tap into another world of design. For example, Michelangelo apparently came up with his unique steps in the Laurentian Library in Florence in a dream. And Sullivan pointed to surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who would dream and then quickly paint his visions.
With Robert Hewitt, ASLA, associate professor at Clemson University, Sullivan put together a group design project that unearthed his students’ dreams. He thinks landscape architects can “integrate dreams into the design process.” As an experiment, he asks designers to “put a sketchbook next to your bed and before you go to sleep focus on a a design problem. Upon waking, replay your dream, record the sequence, catalogue ideas.”
Landscape architects need to once again connect with the spiritual side, the alchemy of landscape. “Landscape architecture doesn’t turn lead into gold, but it’s the ultimate transmutation of one element into another.” With nature as a guide, landscape architects can make their studios like an alchemist’s library, divining new ways to “sublimate, bio-remediate, and distill” natural elements into new forms and substances.
Like Voodoo priests in Haiti, landscape architects can “use the genius loci, the spirit of a place,” to maximum effect. For example, he believes the crescent shape of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans delta is a sort of amplifying device, like out of Ghostbusters. “There is a reason deltas are a symbol in alchemy. They are the birthplaces of civilization.”
And he then expanded his discussion to the powerful role mythological figures can play in landscapes, given they are an ever-present undercurrent. In the early renaissance-era Nymphaeum of Italy “woodland deities were brought out into the landscape.”
Muses can be brought back to play a modern role in linking the conscious and subconscious. Today, “we need to put gods and goddesses back into the landscape. Where is the spiritual aspect?”
A photo posted by Aerial Aesthetics (@aerial_aesthetics) on
Instagram is a great way to get inspired, but there are over 500 million active accounts, so who should you follow? For landscape architects, fresh ideas can be found from following other landscape architects, but also those outside the field: artists, technologists, illustrators, and designers. Here are a few of my favorite Instagram accounts, which offer unique imagery and perspectives.
Please use the comments section to let us know other Instagram accounts you enjoy.
The worst thing you can say about Beeple, AKA Mike Winkleman is that some of his work is derivative. But that’s inevitable when you’ve created a new piece of art everyday for the last 3,400 days and counting. Beeple’s “every days” have inspired many. Some of his recent work shows a fascination with vast, arid landscapes.
A photo posted by Curiosity Rover (@marscuriosity) on
The best Instagram account to follow for photos of the gorgeous Martian landscape is NASA’s, whose Curiosity Rover is currently exploring the base of Mt. Sharp, an 18,000 foot peak rising up out of a 96 mile-wide crater.
Bradley Munkowitz, AKA Gmunk, is a boundary-pushing digital artist, videographer, and photographer. His current series of infrared landscape photos is breathtaking, and he also has a great eye for patterns, textures, and materials.
A photo posted by nightphotography (@nightphotography) on
Nighttime photography is extremely challenging, but offers great creative opportunities. The Night Photography account consolidates the most creative, dramatic nighttime shots into one feed, giving many perspectives on life in the dark.
A photo posted by Oehme, van Sweden (@oehmevansweden) on
Oehme van Sweden is one of the few landscape architecture firms to curate a compelling Instagram account. Vivid photos of plantings, works in progress, life around the office, and a fairly regular output of new content, make this feed stand out.
A photo posted by Eric Arneson (@pangeaexpress) on
Eric Arneson, who curates Pangaea Express, is a landscape designer who uses Instagram well. A great mix of process photos, drawing details, photos from the field, final renderings, and all with a good dose of experimentation.
Finnish photographer Konsta Punkka describes himself as the squirrel whisperer. His photos of Scandinavian wildlife are startling because of the close proximity of his subjects. His photos of the landscape are equally striking.
The moribund Pershing Square Park in downtown Los Angeles briefly came back to life over the past few weeks, thanks to artist Patrick Hearn’s monumental and mesmerizing Liquid Shard, which is made of holographic mylar and monofilament and spans some 15,000 square feet. Riding invisible wind currents, the piece undulates along a span 15 feet high to the top of the park’s tower, at 150 feet high.
According to Hearn, “the inspiration comes from observing nature and the feeling that we are only aware on a very surface level of what is really going on around us. Unexpected things are revealed in time-lapse or hyper-spectrum photography that fascinate me. Like fractals recurring progressively, we feel the currents of air on our skin but do not see the larger movements.”
The video above also shows the incredible capabilities of video-enabled drones. A technology largely unavailable even a few years ago, video-enabled drones now allow artists and designers of all kinds to tell new stories about the places they have created. The value for landscape architects is clear.
As the temporary installation Liquid Shard comes down, Paris-based landscape architecture firm Agence Ter soon start their work redesigning the unloved park. According to The Architect’s Newspaper, “the French landscape firm’s approach is notable for the ‘town square’ approach taken to the site, where a large canopy located at the western edge of the park will house cafés and other amenities that open onto a grassy knoll at the center of the park.”
Los Angeles city council officials hope the new park will open by 2019.
If abundance and variety characterize most gardens, then an austere garden is one marked by subtlety and restraint. Respectable qualities, especially in a society that aspires to opulence. But these same qualities make austerity much trickier to identify and thus admire. Marc Treib, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests in his latest book, Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint, & Attending, that we must attune our senses to recognize austerity and its value.
“Experiential richness does not depend on complex form or an abundance of elements. It is how we look, and what we want to see, that makes a garden,” Treib writes. Decouple ornamentation from beauty and austerity will have its day. Treib’s book is a vision of what that day might look like, with examples of austerity from the past and present, from art, architecture, and landscape design. Japanese gardens make several appearances (Treib has studied them extensively), but so do peat quarries in the UK, an experimental forest in Sweden, and Salgina bridge in Switzerland.
These varied examples of austere works beg the question, how does Treib define austerity? You might get a different answer depending on which page you flip to. “State less, imply more.” “Simplicity, reduction, and compression.” “Restriction in means.” These are all true, of course, but only constitute individual aspects of austerity. One might say, “You’ll know it when you see it.” The challenge Treib sets himself is attuning readers’ eyes to it.
Austere Gardens begins with a description of the musical score 4’ 33” by composer John Cage. The score is performed in front of an audience, although it requires no instrument, just the periodic disruption of silence. The performer relinquishes control to the audience. Shuffling of feet, heavy respiration: ambient noise comes to the fore. Silence becomes music and austerity delivers riches.
4’ 33” possesses an effortlessness common to many of Treib’s examples of austere works. Tactical mowing, cutting, digging, and occluding are economical strokes with outsized impact. Treib gives as an example the construction fence, hiding from passersby what lies beyond. “What has been screened, withheld, or removed often stimulates greater intrigue.” Closure and revelation. Achieving more with less can be interpreted several ways.
Patience is essential to appreciating austerity, writes Treib. “Without taking the time to look, perceive, and perhaps to think, any rewards may be meager.” Even the mundane, perhaps especially the mundane, deserves a prolonged gaze. The austere beauty we’re witnessing, Treib tells us, may be intentional, inadvertent, or the result of time and its effects.
The essay’s organization will frustrate some readers who desire more structure. It is, as the title implies, a series of thoughts. One can read it in a sitting, feel refreshed by its ideas, and then wonder, “What was the overarching point?” A call for austerity and all that implies, certainly. And yet an absence can be felt after putting down Austere Gardens, the sense of a lesson left incomplete. In a way, the essay practices what it preaches, leaving room for the reader to close the circle.
In a leap for interactive art environments, Team Lab, a collaborative of Japanese artists, has put together a fascinating and bizarre collection of works in a 3,000-square-meter space in Tokyo. The pieces are truly responsive: visitors impact and shape the ever-changing works in real-time.
In the Dance of Koi and People – Infinity, visitors wade up to their calves through a shallow pool surrounded by mirrors, which creates the effect of being in an infinite space. As visitors walk through the water, underwater lights that mimic koi fish dart by.
According to the artists, the “trajectory of the koi is determined by the presence of people, and these trajectories trace lines on the surface of the water.” The even-more amazing part: “When the koi collide with people, they turn into flowers and scatter.”
This art work is derived by an algorithm in real time; it’s not a “pre-recorded animation nor on a loop.” It’s a work of continuous interaction and constant change.
In Wander Through the Crystal Universe, visitors interact with a giant pointillist sculpture in which “the particles of light are digitally controlled, and change based on the viewer’s interactivity with the work.” As visitors move, light shifts; as more visitors enter, light accumulates. Visitors can also use their smart phones to chose colors and shapes that will be included in the evolving piece.
In Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers, visitors enable seasonal change. As visitors walk through, “flowers are born, they grow, bud, bloom, and, in time, the petals fall, and the flowers wither and die. The cycle of birth and death continues for perpetuity.” The piece also enables visitors to select butterflies with their smart phones and send them off into the surrounding “flower universe.”
And, lastly, Soft Black Hole, creates a dark space that plays with “the borders of floors, walls, and ceilings,” creating perhaps a startling version of a space you may find in a contemporary Korean spa. As visitors get into the space, their body weight shifts the environment, and so visitors impact the space of other visitors. “Your body changes the space, and the space changes the bodies of others.”
It’s almost August, but there’s still plenty of time left to dive into some quality summer reading. We asked a few landscape architects to share books they’ve been enjoying. Check out their suggestions:
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
“I have just finished reading The Book of Night Women this past 4th of July. This book is written by Marlon James, who won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. The Book of Night Women is a beautiful and lyrically-painful narrative about the lives and landscape of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation. If you are passionate about Faulkner and Morrison, then you will relish this book.”
“A book that grew out of Los Angeles Times’ Jill Leovy’s reports on homicide and working the police beat from 2001 to 2012, Ghettoside takes the reader deep into the communities of south Los Angeles to understand why homicide rates are some of the highest in the country. Weaving together Los Angeles and U.S. history, perspectives from veteran LAPD detectives, scholars, and most importantly those living in Compton, Watts, and adjacent neighborhoods, Ghettoside provides a compelling piece that couldn’t be more timely and fiercely urgent as this country continues to face issues of race and violence, and the consequences of ignoring them.”
California by Kevin Starr
“Everything you wanted to know about California from a great historian. Starr gathers together everything that is most important, most fascinating, and most revealing about America’s 31st State.”
The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
“A playful and perplexing book that centers on a young Parisian researcher who lives inside his bathroom. As he sits in his tub meditating on existence, the people around him further enable his peculiar lifestyle, supporting his eccentric quest for immobility. But then a not-to-be missed opportunity arises and his stable world turns upside down.”
“For the last twenty years, Laura Cunningham has been melding her scientific training – rigorously cataloguing species from her field work in California’s cities and roadsides – with her obvious artistic talent and intuition, painting fluent watercolors of the vanished places that she can now, naturally, picture in her mind. This book feels like her explorer-journal, each hard-earned page built up as she explores and documents a new landscape or vista found in a shockingly familiar, urbanized place that we thought we already knew.
This book is a modern-day reassurance that the age of exploration – and the age of the artist-naturalist – is not over. Perhaps, instead, our era, in which we separate science and art, facts and intuition, may be giving way to a more nuanced one that picks up where the explorer-naturalists left off.”
“Two brilliant new books are a call to action on urban ecology and climate change, with landscape as the principal medium. Kate Orff’s Toward an Urban Ecology is a presentation of ground-breaking projects by Scape, and the principles and strategies that underlie their success. In The Time of the Force Majeure, artists Newton and Helen Harrison describe their work on climate change, ecological design, and community engagement over the past five decades. The Harrisons design virtually every aspect of every project to ‘bring forth a new state of mind’ in themselves and their audience, and they employ ingenious strategies to accomplish this transformation. Human societies cannot successfully mitigate and adapt to the stresses of climate change without a new state of mind, and landscape architects and artists have an essential role to play. The Harrisons have been demonstrating this fact for more than forty years, Kate Orff and Scape more recently. Both books are required reading for landscape architects.”
This year is the 300th anniversary of famed English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s birth. To celebrate, the Landscape Foundation and Building Center in London have put together Lens on a Landscape Genius, an exhibition of 100 photographs, depicting some of the 150 landscapes of Brown’s that still exist, out of the 250 he planned or designed in the 18th century.
Brown created elegant, seemingly-simple landscapes that hid deeper complexity. On the website of the foundation that promotes the preservation of his work, they write: “His designs appear seamless owing to his use of the sunk fence or ‘ha-ha’ to confuse the eye into believing that different pieces of parkland, though managed and stocked quite differently, were one. His expansive lakes, at different levels and apparently unconnected, formed a single body of water as if a river through the landscape, that like the parkland itself, ran on indefinitely. This effortless coherence is taken for granted today.”
While he was highly sought after in his life time, becoming the master gardener for Hampton Court, his reputation declined immediately after his death. His Picturesque style, which would influence Frederick Law Olmsted and others, fell out of favor in the face of Romanticism and later Modernism. His work was viewed as the anti-thesis of the geometric, formal works of French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, but both were long seen as out of style. His style, now known as the English Picturesque, has seen a resurgence though. This year, The Telegraph calls him “the world’s most famous landscape gardener.”
The exhibition includes noteworthy UK-based landscape photographers such as: Andrew Lawson, Joe Cornish, Andrea Jones, Allan Pollok-Morris, Gary Rogers, Derek St. Romaine, Matthew Bruce, Gareth Davies, James Kerr, Archie Miles, Gavin Kingcome, Simon Warner, Jacqui Hurst, Stephen Studd, James Smith, and, lastly, Steffie Shields, who has also just published a book of her photographs of his landscapes: Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape.
Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in the San Francisco 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 7,500 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.
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?
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.
For 16 days last month, visitors to Italy’s Lake Iseo were greeted by The Floating Piers, an installation designed by the Bulgarian-American artist Christo. The work, a system of floating, saffron-draped floating piers, allowed visitors to tour the lake on foot. An estimated 40,000 people walked the 4.5 kilometer-route each day, which ran through the town and onto the lake, from Sulzano to Monte Isola, and looping around the lsland of San Paolo.
Christo, who claims his work deals with the themes of temporality and nomadism, argued the piers were only one aspect of the project. The other aspects were the lake, the surrounding terrain, and “the sun, the rain, the wind.”
First conceived of by Christo and his now-deceased partner Jeanne-Claude in 1970, the project got legs in 2014 when Christo identified the lake 100 kilometers east of Milan as a suitably inspiring site. Other sites Christo considered were Tokyo Bay and the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires.
It took a team of engineers, construction workers, and deep-sea divers 22 months to configure and install the project at Lake Iseo. Much of that time was spent engineering the cloth. According to Christo’s web site, Clandestine tests took place in Germany to address the project’s more nebulous questions: “What color should the fabric take on when wet? When dry? When sunlit? And how many extra meters of cloth would produce just the right amount of ruffles?”
All told, 100,000 square meters of the gold fabric was fitted to 4.5 kilometers of walkway. The floating docks were 53-feet wide and composed of over 200,000 high-density polyethylene cubes. The fabric was water-proof, stain resistant, and underlain with felt, giving shoeless visitors an extra thrill. Critics of the project have derided Christo for his flagrant use of materials. But he insists the materials were conscientiously disposed of — they were recycled at the conclusion of the piece.
The installation likely fulfilled, or came close to fulfilling, the dream of its visitors to walk on water, experiencing the lake as they never had. Visitors have likened it to traipsing on a water bed. Without having walked it, the photos of crisp gold lines drawn on the lake are breathtaking in their own right. Not evident in many of the pictures: the boat hands, life guards, and monitors who were present to help avert any problems.
The Floating Piers bears the hallmarks of the best Christo and Jeanne-Claude installations: Fabric seemingly absconded from a fine linen closet and set in an unexpected location; amid rolling hills for instance, or draped over a cliff face.
Perhaps Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s most recognizable project to date is The Gates, which was installed in Central Park in 2005. Like The Floating Piers, The Gates also used vibrant, gold-colored fabric to guide visitors along a path.
“I know these projects are totally irrational, totally useless,” Christo told The New York Times.“The world can live without them, nobody needs them, only me and Jeanne-Claude. She always made the point that they exist because we like to have them, and if others like them, it’s only a bonus.”
Sale of Christo’s original artwork is expected to cover the $16.8 million project costs.