Miami’s Underline Re-imagines Leftover Space Below a Metrorail Line

The Underline / © Miami-Dade County

Highways and elevated train and subway lines that cut through cities have long been seen as barriers. But through innovative landscape design, the spaces beneath these transportation systems are becoming new linear parks that help bring communities back together. Offering built-in shelter for rain and snow and shade during warmer months, these spaces provide communities and landscape architects an opportunity to create new forms of public space.

After more than six years of planning, design, and construction, the first half-mile-long segment of The Underline, Miami’s 10-mile-long linear park, has opened below the city’s Metrorail system. Designed by a multidisciplinary team led by James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), a landscape architecture and urban design firm, The Underline is a model for how to separate pedestrian and bicycle networks and incorporate exercise facilities and outdoor spaces — all below existing infrastructure.

When The Friends of the Underline, a non-profit organization, and JCFO complete the project, the new park will span from the Miami River in Brickell to the Dadeland South Metrorail station and create more than 120 acres of multi-use public space. Restored natural habitats will mix with public spaces of all kinds along with pedestrian and bicycle paths that link directly to the Metrorail’s stations.

The Underline / © Miami-Dade County

The first segment is already a far cry from what was once there. Isabel Castilla, ASLA, design principal-in-charge for The Underline at JCFO, said: “I still remember one of our first site visits when we had to strategically run between oncoming traffic to cross the street because there was no safe way to cross the SW 7th or SW 8th Street intersections!”

Through outreach sessions, Castilla’s team discovered that improving pedestrian and bicycle access below the Metrorail lines was a priority for the community. “We learned there was a strong desire to create separate paths as some cyclists wanted to travel fast while using The Underline for commuting while others desired a space for strolling,” she said.

To reduce conflicts between pedestrians and bicyclists, JCFO implemented a few smart strategies: “First and foremost, we added traffic lights, pedestrian signals, and crosswalks. Second, the path geometry is always straight and perpendicular to intersection crossings in order to ensure cyclists have proper visibility. All intersections feature designated crosswalks for pedestrians and cyclists in order to give room to everyone and minimize conflicts. Lastly, we implemented bold pavement graphics — not only at intersections to make drivers aware of those crossing on bike or by foot, but also along the bike path to alert cyclists of an upcoming intersection so they can reduce speeds.”

For Alejandro Vazquez, ASLA, design project manager for The Underline at JCFO, the project’s transportation safety benefits are personal. “My grandparents lived in Little Havana and their street didn’t even have a sidewalk to walk on. I remember my grandfather being one of the few people riding a bike in Miami in the 80’s and 90’s, and we were always worried that he would get hit by a car. In a county that has the highest number of pedestrian and bicycle crashes in the state of Florida, the simple act of creating connections through Miami with The Underline’s safe bike trail and pedestrian paths is quite revolutionary. The Underline and its connections to the Metrorail, Metromover, bus transport system, and projected trails—including the future Ludlam trail and the Miami Riverwalk extension—will contribute to a robust network of sustainable mobility corridors.”

The Underline has become part of the greater East Coast Greenway, which runs 2,900 miles from Maine to Florida. Phase one of The Underline links with the Miami River Greenway, and the completed linear park will connect to six major trails in Miami-Dade county.

Beyond the street-level transportation network, JCFO also incorporated a range of public spaces. Brickell Backyard, the first phase of The Underline, found at the northernmost portion, is organized into a “procession of rooms” — the River Room, Gym, Promenade, and Oolite Room. Many of these spaces will also eventually be populated by public art, selected in collaboration with Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places.

The River Room offers views of the Miami River, native and South Florida-friendly plants, and space for residents and their pets.

The River Room at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline
The River Room at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline

The Gym is designed for fitness, with a flexible court for basketball and soccer surrounded by exercise spaces that have strength training equipment, stretch and balance areas, and a running track.

The Gym at The Underline / © Miami-Dade County
The Gym at The Underline / © Miami-Dade County

The Promenade area, which includes the busy multi-modal Brickell Metrorail station, features wide sidewalks for bus and trolley commuters, a pedestrian path, and a separate bike path between the Metrorail columns, which increases safety, JCFO notes.

Social spaces in the Promenade include a Station Grove, which offers moveable tables and chairs and bicycle parking for commuters; a game area with tables for chess and dominoes; a 50-foot-long communal dining table; and a plaza and stage that hosts activities organized by the Friends of the Underline.

The Promenade at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline

The Oolite Room, named after the Oolite sedimentary limestone of Miami that naturally compresses into ooid forms, frames native plant gardens designed to attract butterflies.

The Oolite Room at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline
The Oolite Room at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline
The Oolite Room at The Underline / © Field Operations, courtesy of The Underline

Castilla said: “The Underline is located within the monarch butterfly migration corridor. The park has already seen a resurgence of butterflies that include the Atala butterfly, an endangered endemic South Florida species that thrives with plants such as Coontie and Lantana involucrate.”

Butterfly at The Underline / © Robin Hill, courtesy of The Underline

As Miami faces climate threats such as extreme heat, sea level rise, and increased ground-up flooding through its limestone landscape, the entire project was also designed to be climate resilient.

To reduce heat gain, Castilla tells us “the project is carefully designed around existing mature trees to preserve them while also carving out sizable new planting areas, minimizing hard surfaces, and, in turn, minimizing heat gain. All hardscapes use light-colored materials. In particular, the bike path asphalt paving was coated with a light-colored finish.”

The landscape architects also made sure the project did its part to reduce flooding from stormwater. “The Underline corridor sits on the Miami Rock Ridge, benefiting from some of the highest elevations in Miami. As such, it is not as prone to flooding or sea level rise as other parts of Miami. That said, we have carefully graded the site to direct all surface water to planting beds in order to minimize direct runoff to the city’s sewers.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16-28)

Studio Zewde’s Graffiti Pier project in Philadelphia / Studio Zewde

Studio Zewde Designs for Cultural and Climate Resilience
02/24/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“With several major projects on the docket—including a five-acre park in Pittsburgh’s historically Black Homewood neighborhood—Zewde persists in combating the shibboleths of her field. Landscape has adopted the rubric of resilience as an overarching frame, but its manifestation in individual projects can often feel like an add-on or PR spin.”

Cities Are Sinking Under the Weight of Urban Development
02/23/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“A new study seeks to quantify how much the sheer weight of the built environment contributes to the sinking of cities, a geological phenomenon known as land subsidence.”

Here Are the Winning Landscape Art Installations for the 2021 International Garden Festival
02/19/21, Archinect
“The annual International Garden Festival is returning to the historic Reford Gardens in Grand-Métis, Quebec this summer, and five new projects have just been chosen to be featured alongside the existing gardens.”

WEISS/MANFREDI and Reed Hilderbrand Reveal an Expansive Reimagining at Longwood Gardens
02/18/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“WEISS/MANFREDI and Reed Hilderbrand’s ‘sweeping yet deeply sensitive’ transformation will ‘expand the public spaces of the renowned central grounds and connect them from east to west, offering a newly unified but continually varied journey from lush formal gardens to views over the open meadows of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley.'”

Boston’s Dogs Just Wanna Run Free
02/16/21, The Boston Globe
“So, if the national ‘pandemic puppy’ trend holds up in Boston, soon-to-be mature dogs will be matriculating in public spaces and will insist that their voices are heard. And the dog-owning bloc in Boston naturally keeps sniffing for opportunity and will not take rejection lightly. How does a dog park in every Boston neighborhood sound? That’s the city’s goal, Boston officials confirmed.”

ASLA and IFLA Announce Renewed Commitment

From left to right: 2020 ASLA Award of Excellence in General Design. Cultural Crossing Transforms Portland Japanese Garden into a Place of Cultural Dialogue. Portland, Oregon, United States. Walker Macy. | Photo by James Florio. 2020 ASLA Honor Award in Urban Design. Yongquing Fang Alleyways: An Urban Transformation. Gaungzhou, China. Lab D+H Landscape and Urban Design. | Photo by Arch-Exist. 2020 ASLA Award of Excellence in Analysis & Planning. Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA). Bugesera, Rwanda, Africa. Sierra Bainbridge. | Photo by MASS Design Group. 2019 ASLA Honor Award in General Design. Barangaroo Reserve. Sydney, Australia. PWP Landscape Architecture. | Photo by PWP Landscape Architecture

ASLA has renewed its three-decades-long partnership with the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) to promote the profession of landscape architecture around the globe. This collaborative partnership will focus on battling climate change; establishing the highest standards of professional practice in design, planning, management, conservation, and development of the landscape; and facilitating exchanges of knowledge and information between IFLA Regions and member organizations and ASLA members.

“Climate change is a global crisis that needs to be addressed on a global level. As a nation, the United States is taking bold steps to address the climate crisis, like rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and convening a Climate Summit for the spring. ASLA is proud to do our part, and we look forward to taking an active role in IFLA,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President.

“We are excited that ASLA is partnering with IFLA, especially at this time when there is an opportunity for renewed collaboration and progress globally on climate change and other issues where the landscape architecture profession can provide leadership and insight,” added James Hayter, President of IFLA

Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO, further commented: “As ASLA continues to refine its long-term goals and strategy, the timing is perfect to renew our commitment to being a part of the international conversation about the impact of landscape architecture on climate change, social justice, and other issues facing society.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 1-15)

Water Street master plan, Tampa, Florida / Strategic Property Partners, via Fast Company

Why One City in Car-obsessed Florida Is Prioritizing Pedestrians — 02/12/21, Fast Company
“The plan also involved breaking apart the superblocks that had formed in the area since the 1950s. Elkus Manfredi, along with the landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, reconfigured the grid to be more easily accessible on foot, with smaller blocks and generous space for pedestrians.”

He Designed the Minnesota Zoo and Upgraded the Minneapolis Parkway System. So Why Don’t We Know This Landscape Architect’s Name? — 02/12/21, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“With the recent passing of Roger Bond Martin, Minnesota lost its greatest teacher of landscape architecture and one of the most influential American landscape architects of the past 50 years.”

A Fight to Save a Corporate Campus Intertwined with Nature — 02/12/21, The New York Times
“The campus, designed by the architect Edward Charles Bassett and the landscape architect Peter Walker, featured a low-slung building in a meadow between wooded hillsides. Ivy-covered terraces on the front of the building cascaded down to a lake, and walking paths wound through trees.”

Public Displays of Affection for Urban Life — 02/10/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“U.S. cities ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic are embracing a broader definition of love this year through Valentine’s Day art installations.”

Manhattan’s First Public Beach Is Moving Ahead as Hudson River Park Trust Issues RFPs –02/08/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Now, it looks like work on the $70 million, James Corner Field Operations-designed Gansevoort Peninsula park will kick off this spring.”

California Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman on Climate Leadership in Transportation — 02/04/21, The Planning Report
“Despite California’s nation-leading investments in clean energy infrastructure and zero-emissions vehicle deployment, transportation remains a stubborn sector to decarbonize and the state’s leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (January 16-31)

Terraced pocket park in Chinatown, Los Angeles / AHBE | MIG

Terraced Pocket Park Takes Shape in Chinatown — 01/28/21, Urbanize
“Landscape architecture firm AHBE | MIG designed the project and uses staircases and multiple terrace levels to account for its hillside location. The stepped levels, which provide three entrance points along Ord Street and Hill Place, will include landscaping, seating areas, viewing platforms, and exercise equipment.”

Frank Gehry Teases Plans to Build Raised Parks over the Los Angeles River — 01/28/21, Dezeen
“Concrete stilts would support deep, soil-filled concrete troughs of earth planted with plants and trees, perched four metres above the lip of the concrete-walled channel.”

The Battle Lines Are Forming in Biden’s Climate Push — 01/26/21, The New York Times
“The president is moving rapidly to address global warming, with unlikely allies backing him and huge hurdles, some from his own party, directly ahead.”

Everything We Liked (and Didn’t Like) at Buttigieg’s Transportation Secretary Confirmation Hearing — 01/25/21, Transportation for America
“‘It’s very important to recognize the importance of roadways where pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles, any other mode can coexist peacefully. And that Complete Streets vision will continue to enjoy support from me if confirmed,’ Buttgieg said.”

Turin Turned an Abandoned Tramway into a Linear Park — 01/22/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“‘Precollinear Park’ was supposed to be a temporary reuse of a dead streetcar line. Instead, it became the Italian city’s newest green space.”

ASLA Releases Policy Recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration

ASLA 2020 Professional Urban Design Award of Excellence. Dilworth Plaza. OLIN / James Ewing, OTTO

ASLA released a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration titled “Landscape Architects Design Vibrant, Resilient, and Just Communities for All – Recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration.”

“Our climate is in crisis. Social and racial injustice issues continue to go unaddressed. The pandemic is forcing us to rethink public space,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). “Landscape architects aren’t just designing resilient, sustainable solutions for all these problems – they’re designing the public policies necessary to support that vital work.”

The report makes specific, actionable policy recommendations in four major areas:

  • Applying STEM-related design principles to protect communities.
  • Addressing climate change through sustainable, resilient design.
  • Supporting green community infrastructure solutions.
  • Promoting racial, social, and environmental justice in design.

ASLA’s recommendations are supported by other organizations in the industry, including the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF).

“The pandemic has revealed now more than ever the value of public open spaces: we are human beings and need to be outside and with other human beings,” said Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, CEO of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF). “These policy recommendations provide overdue support to enable landscape architects to design healthy, accessible and equitable outdoor places for people to connect with nature and each other, and rebuild the public realm infrastructure.”

“Landscape architects play a vital and irreplaceable role in the design of the built environment. It’s time their recommendations for how that design is governed are heard and implemented,” Carter-Conneen added. “ASLA urges the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress to review these recommendations and begin the process of implementing them.”

ASLA and our partners look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress on implementing these policy recommendations that will lead to vibrant, resilient and just communities across the nation.

Read the full report

About the Report

The American Society of Landscape Architects compiled a comprehensive series of specific, actionable policy recommendations designed to give landscape architects a seat at the table and support for their vital work. The report is broken down into four sections.

ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Award. Sea Change: Boston, Sasaki Associates / Sasaki Associates

The first, Landscape Architects Apply STEM to Protect the Public, outlines the measures necessary to assist landscape architects in meeting the economic demands and challenges facing our nation.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Support continued state licensure of highly complex technical professions, including landscape architecture, to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
  • Provide targeted and sustained COVID-19 relief for small businesses, including landscape architecture firms.
  • Appoint landscape architects to key positions throughout the Biden-Harris administration, including within the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture, and in the Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, the U.S. Access Board, and others.
  • Include landscape architecture on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Designated Degree Program List.

The second section, Landscape Architects Lead in Climate Solutions, focuses on policy solutions that support landscape architects’ work to design resilient, sustainable spaces that help communities mitigate and adapt to the effects of the ongoing climate crisis.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Create a comprehensive, science-based climate action plan to significantly reduce carbon emissions.
  • Establish adaptation and mitigation strategies using natural systems to make communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
  • Protect underserved communities from climate and environmental injustices.
  • Adopt the Sustainable Sites Initiative® (SITES®) for all federal projects.
  • Reverse rules, regulations, and policies from the Trump administration that weaken environmental protections and ignore climate change, specifically involving the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) and the Waters of the U.S.( WOTUS).

The third section, Landscape Architects Transform Community Infrastructure, outlines policies to encourage the designing and building of community infrastructure projects in a way that fosters sustainable development, generates jobs, encourages healthy lifestyles, and creates resilient, equitable, and economically vibrant communities.

Recommendations in this section center around the following goals:

  • Upgrade to a multimodal transportation network.
  • Fix our nation’s water management systems.
  • Recognize public lands, parks, and open space as “critical infrastructure.”
  • Design resilient communities.

The fourth and final section, Landscape Architects Seek Racial, Social, and Environmental Justice, provides specific recommendations that seek to address the inequities that harm underserved communities, including communities of color, low-income populations, and Tribal and Indigenous communities across the country.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Work with Congress to codify Executive Order 12898, so that it is permanent law for federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental effects of agency actions on low-income and minority communities.
  • Join stakeholders across the country in advancing the tenets of the Environmental Justice for All Act (H.R. 5986), which help to ensure that all communities are protected from pollution and that all voices are heard in the federal environmental decision-making.
  • Consider policies that promote design techniques as a tool to address racial, environmental, and social justice for all.

Read the full list of recommendations

Biden-Harris Administration Rejoins Paris Climate Accord

Inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris / Kevin Dietsch, CNP/Polaris, Europa Press via AP News

Only a few hours after being sworn in, President Joseph R. Biden signed an executive order that recommits the United States to the Paris Climate Accord. The U.S., the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, now rejoins more than 195 nations in seeking to limit global warming to 1.5 ° Celsius (2.7 ° Fahrenheit) by ratcheting up emissions reductions every five years. The goal is to achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050.

In 2015, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, the U.S. committed to reducing American emissions by 26-28 percent by 2030 by raising vehicle emissions standards and phasing out coal-powered electrical generation and then accelerating emission reductions by 2050. In 2017, President Donald Trump announced his administration would be taking the U.S. out of the agreement. The actual abandonment of the agreement didn’t occur until November 2020.

President Trump’s policy caused a groundswell among state and local governments to commit to the U.S.’s 2015 pledge. The Center for American Progress found that 26 red and blue states and territories—representing a majority of the U.S. population—remained committed to the Obama administration’s goals. Furthermore, the Clean Energy States Alliance states that 17 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia enacted plans for achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 or earlier. Thousands of cities, businesses, religious organizations, universities, and non-profit organizations, including ASLA, joined the “We Are Still In” coalition.

Due to the pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions dropped 9.2 percent in 2020, but with expansive forest fires out West, the net reduction was calculated to be just 6.4 percent. Still, this reduction actually puts the U.S. within reach of achieving the Obama administration’s goals for 2030.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned on an ambitious platform of climate action and environmental justice. To achieve their plan, they call for $1.7 trillion in federal government investment, along with leveraging another $5 trillion in state and local government and private sector funds over the next decade.

Specifically, their plan calls for 100 percent renewable power in the electricity sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions no later than 2050. The administration plans on asking Congress to enact legislation that establishes an enforcement mechanism for milestone targets, makes “historic investments” in clean energy and climate research and innovation, and “incentivizes the rapid deployment of clean energy innovations,” particularly in underserved and historically marginalized communities.

Other major parts of their platform include taking on a global leadership role to speed up climate action, ensuring all investments in new infrastructure also help American communities adapt to climate change, targeting polluters who “disproportionately harm underserved communities,” and supporting the growth of green jobs.

According to The Guardian, the Biden-Harris administration is expected to organize an international climate summit in spring 2021 in the effort to spur on more ambitious commitments at the UNFCCC COP26 meeting in November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. The U.S.’s own emission reduction goals will also be reconsidered and then packaged as a nationally determined contribution, which is required for signatories to the Paris Climate Accord.

To realize these plans, President Biden has elevated climate change-related positions in his administration and assembled a team of well-seasoned climate policy experts.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry was appointed as Special Envoy for Climate Change and given a seat on the National Security Council and the cabinet. On the domestic side, Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been appointed as national “climate czar,” with responsibility for coordinating domestic climate policy. (McCarthy was the keynote speaker at ASLA’s 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture). The Washington Post reports that Ali Zaidi, New York’s deputy secretary for energy and environment, will be McCarthy’s deputy.

The EPA and the Departments of the Interior, Energy, Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development all play critical roles in achieving the Biden-Harris administration’s climate goals.

To head up the EPA, Biden nominated Michael S. Regan, Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, who started the department’s first environmental justice advisory board. For Secretary of the Interior, Biden nominated New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman selected for a cabinet role. Both Rep. Haaland and President Biden are strong advocates for conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and waters in an effort to protect American biodiversity and natural resources and better use landscapes as a carbon sink.

And for Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Biden nominated Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who pledges to integrate climate change and equity considerations into federal transportation infrastructure investments. The Department of Transportation is crucial to expanding access to low-carbon transportation infrastructure, such as green Complete Streets and public transit; creating more stringent fuel emission standards; and expanding access to electric vehicles. Learn more about all of Biden’s key nominees.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2020

Harbor Spring, Michigan / Robert Gibbs

While we look ahead to what’s new in the built and natural environments, it’s also valuable to look back at what attracted readers’ attention the most last year. Here’s a review of the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2020.

Readers wanted to know more about the causes of the pandemic and its impacts on human and environmental health and local economies. Contributions from ASLA members explored the health risks of destroying biodiversity and expanding into natural areas and offered creative planning and design solutions to reduce the chances of another virus-driven catastrophe. Amid the global Black Lives Matter protest movement, readers also sought to learn more from Black landscape architects on their experiences with racism — and the need to preserve and celebrate Black landscapes.

ASLA members: please send us your original op-eds or articles on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

After Lockdown, New Opportunities for Downtown Shopping Districts

Robert Gibbs, FASLA: “Since the earliest human settlements, the retail experience has evolved to meet the needs of the public. This evolution has taken us from rural markets to towns, cities, suburban shopping malls, big box mega-stores, and, more recently, the Internet. But what will retail shopping look like once COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people return to the wild for their shopping experiences?”

Interview with Walter Hood: Black Landscapes Matter

Walter Hood, ASLA: “Sometimes places are palimpsests, meaning part of the brick and mortar, and some of them are based in memories, the passing of time. For people of color who are marginalized, stories get lost. Each project is fraught with chance. I am not trying to solve a problem, per se. I’m trying to put something out in the world that has been covered up, erased, which might allow people to see the world and themselves in a different way.”

Interactive Maps Track Western Wildfires

Amid the continuing devastation, an interactive map from ESRI, which creates geographic information system software, enables users to track active fires by name or location in near real time and sort by timeline and magnitude. The map indicates each fire’s estimated start date and its current level of containment. Another layer provides a smoke forecast for any given location.

The Pandemic Offers an Opportunity to Re-Wild Our Communities

Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA: “My view is that feral green agglomerations will pop up across cities and suburbs. Residents will benefit from their habitat patches, stormwater storage, carbon sequestration, and makeshift community gathering areas.”

Biodiversity and Pandemic Diseases (or How We Came to Know Our World in 2020)

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA: “In the 21st century, globalized economic growth has reached the end of its rope. Economies can’t continue to expand without creating new pandemic risks, as more people press up against the habitat of more wildlife or raise domestic animals in unhealthy conditions. We’re now part of one big, highly connected planetary ecosystem that’s going to bite us back hard if we step on it the wrong way.”

Amid the Pandemic, Take Time to Reconnect with Nature

If you are in a place impacted by COVID-19, spending 20 minutes experiencing nature in a park, street, or even your backyard can significantly reduce your stress levels. Just be sure to follow federal, state, and local guidelines and maintain social distancing of 6 feet. But even if you cannot or are unable to go outside, taking a break by opening a window and looking at a tree or plant can also help de-stress.

Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Michael Grove, FASLA: “Degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.”

Asia’s Largest Urban Rooftop Farm Is a Model of Integrated Design

At first, the images of Thammasat University Rooftop Farm seem like renderings, but they are in fact real. Designed by Landprocess, which is led by landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, the 1.7-acre rooftop farm in Bangkok, Thailand, is not only mesmerizing but also a model of sustainable multi-use infrastructure.

I Could Have Been Ahmaud Arbery

Andrew Sargeant, ASLA: “We must change the narrative about investing in Black landscape architects and other minority designers as ‘helping them.’ Investment in diverse people and communities is investing in the future of the profession. I don’t want ‘help.'”

How Will the Pandemic Impact the Built Environment?

Throughout the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering, landscape architects, planners, architects, and developers struggled to figure out how the pandemic is impacting communities and the built environment — and tried to foresee what changes are coming in the near future.

From Ancient Rome to Contemporary Singapore: The Evolution of Conservatories

The Conservatory: Gardens Under Glass / Princeton Architectural Press

By Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA

According to Pliny, Roman Emperor Tiberius’s doctors instructed their charge to consume a fruit of the Cucurbits family each day. To grow these melon and cucumber fruits year-round on his home island of Capri, Tiberius directed construction of specularia: “[He] had raised beds made in frames upon wheels, by means of which the Cucumis were moved and exposed to the full heat of the sun; while, in winter, they were withdrawn, and placed under the protection of frames glazed with mirror-stone.”

Thus begins The Conservatory: Gardens Under Glass. Illustrating their text with stunning photography, the authors Alan Stein and Nancy Virts, co-founders of Maryland’s Tanglewood Conservatories, survey the evolution of the conservatory in Europe, North America, and, ultimately, the world. The conservatory, an outgrowth of global trade, imperialism, and innovation, embodies a historical leap in the conjoining of architecture and landscape architecture—the extension of the growing season by manipulating the outputs of the sun.

Winter-plaats in den Hoff van d’Academie Tot Leyden, engraving, Johannes Commelin, 1676 / The LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

After specularia, the next great innovation in overwintering plants didn’t occur until the arrival of oranges to Europe in the late fifteenth century. Wood and stone structures called orangeries protected the citrus from cold temperatures. At first merely functional, these buildings grew increasingly extravagant, achieving maximal opulence in the seventeenth century at Louis XIV’s Versailles. There, the orangery, 492 feet long and 42 feet high with double windows and thick walls, warmed over 1,000 orange trees.

And yet, an “ordinary stone-and-glass orangery” was not suitable for Hugh Percy, the third duke of Northumberland, who needed a structure for his collection of exotic plants—“the floral dividend of Great Britain’s expanding global empire.”

Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire, England, map, Colomb, John Charles Ready, 1886 / Boston Public Library, Normal B. Leventhal Map Center, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

Lucky for him, the industrial advances of the nineteenth century were taking hold: new fabrication methods for glass and metal made them ubiquitous and affordable, and standardization increased speed and affordability of construction. With all that at hand, in 1827 Charles Fowler designed the Great Conservatory for Percy’s Syon Park in England, a structure of iron webbing connected by countless panes of glass: the first conservatory.

Syon Park Conservatory / Photo by Alan Stein, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

With material innovation came a shift in intention. Instead of gardens of pleasure for the wealthy, conservatories also became research centers to study the medicinal and industrial value of the plants they housed. The Palm House (1848) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England particularly embodied this transition. Not only did the conservatory present the first structural use of wrought iron at such a large scale, but it was also free for the public to enter. Kew’s research center served as model for conservatories around the world.

If the Palm House marked a turning point in the use of wrought iron, the Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton did the same for glass. Constructed as the Exposition Hall for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the “revolutionary modular structure” occupied nineteen acres and reached a height of 168 feet—and was built, in fact, around several elm trees on site. The immense amount of glass was enabled by the production of large panes, and machine fabrication allowed uniformity, affordability, and rapid installation. After the international Great Exhibition hosted over 14,000 exhibitors and 6 million visitors, a flurry of conservatory construction swept the world. The Crystal Palace’s light, open space, and facility of construction subsequently informed architecture of all kinds, and the relationship between buildings and the outdoors.

The Crystal Palace Exhibition, London, painting / Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries; Hornbake Digitization Center, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, conservatories at the scale of the Crystal Palace emerged across Europe, growing increasingly elaborate in form and detail. Serving as “a way for the wealthy to preen and for universities to pursue research,” they seemingly offered an acceptable display of affluence. British conservatory design influence emerged from the Chateau Lednice Conservatory in the Czech Republic (1845), the Palm House conservatory (1880) at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, as well as further south in Madrid and Milan.

The Schönbrunn Palace Park conservatory, Vienna, Austria / Photo by Alan Stein, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

North Americans, too, replicated the British conservatory model. They didn’t have an empire, but they had their own brand of colonialism, and, “like the Europeans, Americans needed places to conserve and study what had been found.” New York built its own Crystal Palace (1853); San Francisco erected its Conservatory of Flowers (1879); and Pittsburgh, the Phipps Conservatory (1893). Conservatories became integrated with the City Beautiful movement, whose romanticized parks often included glasshouses, like those in Baltimore and Chicago.

Throughout this progression, as note Marc Hachadourian and Todd Forrest in the volume’s introduction, “the history of conservatory design is the history of humankind’s obsession with cultivating rare, exotic, useful, and beautiful plants.” As such, it is often a history of the elite, as those with the means to obsess over such plants have usually been those of power and wealth—a fact made clear in The Conservatory. But also as such, the history of conservatory design is of those who labored in the conservatories, the factory workers of the industrial revolution, and the territories from which the conservatory plants were snatched, newly “discovered.”

Mount Vernon Orangery, United States / © National Portrait Gallery, London, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

The authors do not eschew the problematic imperial stimulus behind conservatories. And they importantly note that, in the days of orangeries, the primary difference between European and American versions was their work force: American orangeries were built and maintained by enslaved people. Yet this volume begs more such admissions and revelations. As Kofi Boone, FASLA, writes: “what if landscape architecture were described with some acknowledgement of the dynamics of race, class, gender, and power?” Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, in which sat the Peters Rawlings Conservatory (1888), mandated recreational segregated facilities for Black and white individuals until the 1950s. What bearing did this racial division have on visitors to the conservatory?

The history of conservatories also prompts inquiry into their present-day purposes as we struggle to chart new habits beyond our imperial and colonial pasts. Most historic structures have rightly dedicated themselves to education and research, and, along with newly constructed ones, have become leaders in environmental efforts and stewards of biodiversity. Kew, for instance, has played a critical role in protecting Taxus wallichinana, a Nepalese plant from which an anti-cancer drug derives. Though, these initiatives too can be seen as a contemporary embodiment of the same problematic worldview that birthed the structures: a worldview that collects, “protects,” controls, and systematizes the exotic Other.

The modern structures, like their antecedents, exemplify technological advance and trends. Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory (1989), also a modern research institution, was recognized for its energy conservation. The two conservatories at Parc André Citroën (1992) in Paris stand upright through tension cables that underpin skins of glass. Amazon’s Spheres (2018) at its corporate headquarters in Seattle bring nature to its employees so they may “think more collaboratively and creatively” (there are certainly much more cynical interpretations).

And yet, what if a modern conservatory were rooted in and respectful of place and culture, rather than exploitative of them? One of the book’s few glasshouses from the Southern Hemisphere, Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay (2012), offers an example in part. Climate change takes center stage at its Cloud Forest, where the visitor ascends the 135-foot thickly vegetated Cloud Mountain. The path winds through different sections, among them “Lost World, “Earth Check,” and “+5 Degrees,” each revealing calamitous effects of a changing climate on plants.

The anthropological alterations of the planet may have themselves altered the gesture of the conservatory. Our longstanding obsession to cultivate plants divorced from site — of a piece with the driving forces of the climate crisis — has turned out to be a preemptive salve: the modern conservatory has germ in the earth that was.

Gardens by the Bay, Flower Dome Conservatory, Singapore / Thebigland / Shutterstock.com, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

Indeed, from the current vantage point, a visit to a conservatory does seem of the past. In the Covid-19 era, who would elect an indoor nature over that outdoors? But this moment will likely pass, and The Conservatory makes a persuasive argument for the role of conservatories in our contemporary world. The authors’ passion for the structures, and their admiration for the assiduity required to erect and tend them, similarly convinces the reader of their magic.

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

Best Books of 2020

Black Landscapes Matter / University of Virginia Press

During this unforgettable year, a number of new books were published that renew our hope for racial justice, human and environmental health, and climate action. For those spending time at home over the holidays, now is a great time to explore bold new ideas through books. Whether you are looking for the perfect gift or a meaningful read for yourself, explore THE DIRT’s best books of 2020:

Black Landscapes Matter
University of Virginia Press, 2020

Landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, and writer and educator Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, have co-edited a very personal volume of contributions from Black landscape architecture thought leaders, such as Kofi Boone, FASLA, Austin Allen, ASLA, Louise A. Mozingo, and urban planner Maurice Cox. Rich visual essays of photographs and design renderings are interspersed amid the contributions, which explore the deep yet often unrecognized history of Black American landscapes and make a powerful case for researching, honoring, and preserving these places. Through greater understanding, landscape architects and designers can create landscapes that are more honest about American history, more respectful of diversity and difference, and encourage greater inclusion. As Hood explains, “Black landscape matter because they are renewable. We can uncover, exhume, validate, and celebrate these landscapes through new narratives and stories that choose to return us to origins.” Read an interview with Hood.

The Art of Earth Architecture / Princeton Architectural Press

The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, and Future
Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

This gorgeous 500-page door stopper of a book, which is more than a foot tall, makes the case for using raw earth — not baked or fired earth — to build our homes and communities. Used for thousands of years, across many cultures, raw earth is one of the most sustainable building materials invented. Earth architecture is clearly a passion of former Centre Pompidou curator Jean Dethier, who ably mixes in diverse contributions and finds fascinating cases that span the millennia and continents. Raw earth building isn’t just for ancient kingdoms; a whole chapter on “contemporary creativity” shows the potential of the building technology as a critical climate change solution today. The book is part National Geographic-style photographic odyssey; part architectural call to action.

Alex MacLean Impact / Birkhäuser

Impact: The Effect of Climate Change on Coastlines
Birkhäuser, 2020

Aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock. Read the full review.

The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York / University of Minnesota Press

The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York
University of Minnesota Press, 2020

Mariana Mogilevich, a historian of architecture and urbanism and editor-in-chief of Urban Omnibus, the online publication of The Architectural League of New York, has written about a moment in history in New York City, during the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay in the mid-1960s through the early 70s, “when designers, government administrators, and residents sought to remake the city in the image of a diverse, free, and democratic society.” Through extensive archival research, site work, interviews, and the analysis of film and photographs, Mogilevich delves into how theories of psychology and inclusion influenced the work of landscape architects Paul Friedberg, FASLA, and Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, as well as the architects of New York City’s Urban Design Group.

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems
Island Press, 2020

Written for professionals working in sustainability and environmental security, the new book by authors R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson, and Michael Mortimer provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, a leadership toolbox, and a storybook of “wicked leadership” in practice. This practical guide provides clear leadership strategies that support emerging and seasoned planning and design professionals alike. Read the full review.

Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism / Taschen

Lo―TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism
Taschen, 2020

Lo–TEK catalogues indigenous technologies from across the globe, positing that scaling and hybridizing them with conventional technologies can provide a new vocabulary of sustainable innovations in the built environment. Watson, an Australia-born and New York–based architect, activist, academic, and founder of both Julia Watson and A Future Studio, researched and wrote Lo–TEK over six years. While exploring 18 countries, Watson pinpointed the inherent advantage of Lo–TEK design: it is “both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes, such as famine, flood, frost, drought, and disease.” Read the full review.

New Horizons: Eight Perspectives on Chinese Landscape Architecture Today / Birkhäuser

New Horizons: Eight Perspectives on Chinese Landscape Architecture Today
Birkhäuser, 2020

In a compelling survey of eight contemporary Chinese landscape architecture practices, Jutta Kehrer, director at LAC in Hong Kong and former design director at AECOM, shows the incredible breath of creativity across China. The emerging firms are creating striking and sustainable contemporary places rooted in traditional and vernacular styles. In an essay, Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, writes that “these firms put design in service of community building, local economic development, and reinvestment in place, people, and processes.” And Ron Henderson, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, notes that “there is a revived confidence explicit in the work.”

Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities / Island Press

Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities
Island Press, 2020

Landscape architect David Barth, ASLA, argues that “the majority of parks and recreation system plans address traditional parks and recreation improvements, rather than community-wide issues.” Barth provides a much-needed contemporary approach, calling for park and recreation systems to address racial and social inequities and climate change and become more interconnected. He also outlines how parks and recreational sites can become “high-performing public spaces.” Together, these approaches can help public parks and recreation departments transcend their silos and better partner with other government agencies and private park conservancies and developers to create park and recreation systems that work better for the entire community.

Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves / Island Press

Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves
Island Press, 2020

Dr. Howard Frumkin is the former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health. We are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being. Read the full review.

Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagiste

Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagiste
Birkhäuser, 2020

The French landscape architect Michel Desvigne isn’t well-known in the U.S. but a new monograph of his firm’s work from the publisher Birkhäuser should help change that. Transforming Landscapes beautifully conveys Desvigne’s simple yet striking parks, plazas, and master plans. There is a sense of clarity in his work that emerges as you look through the book’s many rich color photographs. The book is entirely focused on Desvigne’s public projects, which is where his passion lies. Read the full review.

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.