“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” — Wallace Stegner, 1983
The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial this year and is ready to move into its next 100 years by restoring its crown jewels and also embracing new parks and a diverse range of visitors. At the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Barbara Wyatt, ASLA, NPS and the National Register of Historic Places: Landscape Initiative said, the service must “maintain natural, community, historic, and cultural elements” while upholding standards of excellence far into the future. The NPS now boasts of 412 units, including vast tracts of wilderness, important cultural institutions, monuments, and historic landscapes.
Susan Olmsted, ASLA, with Mithun explained efforts to restore one of the system’s jewels: the Mariposa Groves of giant sequoias in Yosemite. Her efforts are about “building resilience for this cherished place.” In the midst of one of the rarest ecologies in the world, there was a parking lot and a tram to accommodate all visitors. People were about to “love these trees to death.” Over a hundred years of fire suppression (natural fires were re-introduced in 1971) had also been a setback for the species. The health and well-being of the trees was put at the center of the restoration plan.
Places like these, which feed into the national imagination and “elevate the human spirit,” are some of the most important elements of the NPS experience. The Mariposa Grove is now on its way back to a healthy and long future and will re-open next summer.
The National Mall, as tapis vert, is in many ways the opposite of the Mariposa Groves at Yosemite, but is no less important to the national imagination as the soaring heights of the giant Sequoia. We gather there for inaugurations and to hear the rallying cry of leaders calling for civil rights. It is, in a sense, the front lawn for all Americans. But with 30 million visitors a year and over 3,000 officially-permitted uses, it was in need of rehabilitation.
Michael Stachowicz is the only turf management specialist on NPS’ staff, and recognizes the importance of keeping the Mall green and healthy. The rehabilitated lawn was “designed for modern use while keeping its historic character.” Millions of feet over many years had caused serious soil compaction, terrible drainage, and patchy green. His rehabilitation efforts included thoughtful grading, specially-grown sod from seed, drainage systems, stormwater cisterns, and engineered soils. His maintenance policy has moved from “damage repair to damage prevention.” He acknowledged sometimes the best thing you can do is ask people to “keep off the lawn.”
Phil Hendricks, ASLA, Robert Peccia & Associates, offered his experience in the creation of one of the newest units in the system: the Waco Mammoth National Monument, in Waco, Texas, as well as his restoration work at the Flamingo Visitor Center and Campground in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Both parks refer back to well documented NPS styles guidelines. The original “park rustic” design was applied to Waco Mammoth, and the Flamingo Resort was restored to mid-century “Mission 66” style, even down to a new coat of flamingo-pink paint.
The NPS seeks to embrace a broader constituency of visitors across its ever expanding urban and natural landscapes, cultural heritage sites, and monuments. With its increasing embrace of public-private partnerships, it’s also finding the funding to continue into its next century. This land is your land, go out and see it.
Can spending time in nature help heal veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury? As suicides from PTSD sufferers only increase, the Institute for Integrative Health (TIIH) seeks out answers to this important question through their new Green Road project, which just opened at the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed Military Medical Center, in Maryland.
In the middle of the vast medical and university campus, the Green Road takes patients, nurses, and staff down a zig-zaging path to a healing woodland garden, a beautiful 2-acre valley, which used to be a golf course, but now feels wild. The restored forest and stream are at the heart of the experience.
And these restored places are the source of the vista seen from two new, open-air cedar and steel pavilions.
The landscape was designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA, and his students at the University of Maryland.
The idea for the project came from retired U.S. Navy neurologist Frederick Foote, M.D., now a scholar at TIIH. His vision was to bring back an ancient idea: using nature to heal. As Foote explained, four different teams of scientists — from the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Tucson; Benson-Henry Institute of the Massachusetts General Hospital; Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; and National Institute of Health Clinical Center, Pain, and Palliative Care Services — will undertake in-depth studies in the Green Road to “isolate where nature has the most effect.” Some $1.1 million in research will be conducted, all made by possible by the smart and impactful TKF Foundation, which provided some $1.1 million towards the $3.2 million project.
Walking down the path, one of the first things visitors notice are the massive logs strewn through the garden. At first, I thought their intention was ecological: to regenerate the soil and create habitat for small creatures. But, as Foote explained, the dead trees are also symbols of fallen soldiers. Often, soldiers experience PTSD because they have lost a close friend in battle. The logs are opportunities for those suffering with PTSD to remember those they’ve lost in a more gentle, natural way and connect death with the positive cycle of regeneration.
Throughout, the garden brings in elements that veterans, both with PTSD and without, identified were important to them. As Sullivan explained at the opening ceremony, design charrettes were conducted with 30 veterans to figure out how the natural beauty of the stream and forest could be enhanced to create a healing effect. “They wanted both a solitary place where they could get away and find solace nature, and a special place to meet others to commemorate those who had fallen, a place to get together with family and comrades.”
The landscape restoration was extensive. Invasive plants were removed and 58 new trees were planted, including river birch, pin oaks, and magnolias. Summersweet shrubs, which will bloom in summer, were planted in abundance. Still, the restored stream, done by Angler Environmental, is perhaps the major attraction. One bank was stabilized, trees were cut back, and the other eroding bank will be restored next.
Foote explained that “the Green Road features stone, water, trees, and animals. Through design, they are paired in new ways. We believe these paired natural systems can help heal PTSD.”
Foote looks to nature for solutions, perhaps because he has spent decades witnessing the failings of modern medicine to solve PTSD in wounded warriors. “We have been trying to heal people one organ at a time with pills and surgery.” But the problem is that PTSD “doesn’t respond to those treatments, so we need to try holistic approaches.”
That move towards holistic medicine — which the Greeks of ancient times and the Chinese of today still practice — has been a slog. “Our cultural obsession with technology means we underestimate holistic therapy.” Mainstream medical practitioners undervalue it, because, to date, it has been impossible to measure “whole body effects, mathematically.” They can only measure with confidence that this treatment or that pill yields results on this or that organ.
Foote sees the future in creating proof of the benefits of holistic approaches: a set of “whole body metrics” that could be used to test and measure the effect of these treatments for PTSD and other disorders. Foote wants to apply many technologies and approaches to forge these new metrics: genomics, which would look at which genes are turned on during PTSD and what can turn then off; artificial intelligence-based textual analysis of patients’ writings to categorize and diagnose their disorders; integrated biometrics of stress to measure physiological effects of suffering and also treatments; and big data analyses to find more accurate sub-groups for evaluation. Foote hopes the Green Road can help test these nascent “whole body metrics,” at least for the metrics and potential treatments related to exposure to nature. “I hope this becomes the national laboratory for studying how humans interact with nature.”
His plan is that a group of 50 veterans, some suffering from PTSD and some not, will be studied in the Green Road. Their physiological response to the place will be measured in detail. “We could ask a group to spend an hour in the Green Road on a scavenger hunt, and then the next day, they could do the same on the streets and we could measure the differences in their responses.”
While the Green Road is a major success, the only criticism is that it’s hidden behind buildings and parking lots, and there is no signage to explain how to get there. It’s a good 15 minute walk from the medical facilities. For patients, it’s a destination, not a place to simply wander into. Walter Reed will need to further promote to ensure it’s well-used by the people who need it. Asked whether Walter Reed will actually prescribe patient time there or conduct horiticultural therapy sessions there, Foote seemed a bit pessimistic, pointing to limited budgets. “We need $2 million, $5 million to do everything.” But he does see the Green Road hosting events and therapeutic exercises.
His grand vision for sometime in the near future is beautiful: sufferers of PTSD will wear a device like a Fitbit that would measure whole body responses and would let them know when they are getting stressed and alert them to go spend time in a park. A fascinating mix of ancient wisdom and new technologies.
A new online guide launched today by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) explains how communities can better protect themselves from natural disasters through resilient landscape planning and design.
According to the guide, the goal of resilient landscape planning and design is to retrofit communities to recover more quickly from extreme events, now and in the future. In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multilayered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often the more cost-effective and practical solutions.
The guide includes hundreds of case studies and resources demonstrating multi-benefit systems as well as small-scale solutions. It also explains landscape architects’ role in the planning and design teams helping to make communities more resilient.
Resilient design involves working with nature—instead of in opposition to it. It provides value to communities, including:
Risk reduction: As events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, communities must adapt and redevelop to reduce potential risks and improve ecological and human health. It’s also time to stop putting communities and infrastructure in high-risk places. And communities must reduce sprawl, which further exacerbates the risks.
Scalability and Diversity: Resilient landscape planning and design offers a multi-layered system of protection, with diverse, scalable elements, any one of which can fail safely in the event of a catastrophe.
Multiple Co-Benefits: Resilient landscape design solutions offers multiple benefits at once. For example, designed coastal buffers can also provide wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities; urban forests made up of diverse species clean the air while reducing the urban heat island effect; and green infrastructure designed to control flooding also provides needed community space and creates jobs.
Regeneration: Disruptive natural events that are now occurring more frequently worldwide harm people and property. Resilient design helps communities come back stronger after these events. Long-term resilience is about continuously bouncing back and regenerating. It’s about learning how to cope with the ever-changing “new normal.”
In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multi-layered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often more cost-effective and practical solutions. In an age of rising waters and temperatures and diminishing budgets, the best defenses are adaptive, like nature.
The guide to resilient design has been strengthened through the expert guidance of Alexander Felson, ASLA, assistant professor, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale School of Architecture; Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning and urban design, University of California at Berkeley; Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, graduate program director and associate professor, Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning; Nate Wooten, Associate ASLA, landscape designer, OLIN; and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean, Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape and Turenscape.
The panel, which was led by Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a member of the LAF board of directors, essentially worried that the importance of “physical design, which engages culture and nature,” may be lost in the total quest for sustainability and restoring ecosystems. Their response was designed landscapes must be beautiful if we expect communities to love them and take care of them far into the future.
Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal of Claude Cormier + Associates, said aesthetics has always played a central role in landscape architecture. Frederick Law Olmsted was “focused on nature as an aesthetic experience.” For Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, Mikyoung Kim Design, it’s less about aesthetics, a term she dislikes, and more about the “process of creativity, which is methodical and conscious, and about tapping intuition, which occurs on a subconscious level.” But she cautioned that if landscape architects were “too creative, they risk missing the pressing global issues.”
In the context of the overall summit, this seemed like a shocking statement: “We can’t save the world, but we can address some major issues through design in contemporary ways,” argued Chris Reed, FASLA, founder of Stoss. “Design can move people’s hearts to create action.” Ken Smith, FASLA, principal of Ken Smith Workshop, largely concurred, arguing that “aesthetics matter. The qualitative aspects — the spaces, programs, forms — provide meaning to humans. Landscapes can delight, confound, confuse, excite us.” He pointed to the art world, where the “new is often ugly,” arguing that perhaps landscape architects also need to be pushing the boundaries on concepts of beauty. Meanwhile, Maria Goula, associate professor at Cornell University, asked: “do we need new aesthetics or perhaps multiple aesthetics?”
Ecology: Make Ecological Design Mainstream
“People will look at us and this time and say we just didn’t get it,” said Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, professor at University of California, Berkeley, referring to the many dangers facing our ecosystems and planet. Hill, who moderated the ecology panel, relayed how San Francisco’s city government momentarily fell into crisis when a senior official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated they expected a 6-9 feet sea level rise by 2050. While it was just one official’s personal opinion, San Francisco’s panicked response showed that “stronger sense of urgency is needed” in the push to adapt our ecosystems to the coming environmental changes. “Unprecedented instability is coming. The role of landscape architects is to think out the options and try not to panic.”
Ellen Neises, ASLA, an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania, said in this age of crisis, we need to move away from “sustainability propaganda in which ‘optimism sells.'” Instead, “designers need to provoke more.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and major force behind the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), rued that ecology is “still not mainstream in our profession.” He called for landscape architecture educators to “embed scientific rigor in the educational process,” and landscape architects to do the same in their design process. “Beauty and performance aren’t mutually exclusive. All forms of life matter.”
Brett Milligan, ASLA, University of California, Davis, argued that “if we do things to the landscape, they sometimes respond in some ways we dislike. We need a new, relational way to interact with the landscape.” Julie Bargmann, founding principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, urged caution against becoming too all-knowing about nature, arguing that “ecological models are slippery.” And Antje Stokman, International ASLA, professor at the University of Stuttgart, called for creating methods to encourage “direct community engagement with the environment,” particularly in environments characterized by heavy migration among both human and other species.
Society: Diversify and Co-design with Communities
Deb Guenther, FASLA, partner at Mithun, led a discussion that focused on the twinned goals of increasing diversity in the landscape architecture profession and better reaching under-served communities. Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal at DesignJones, pointed to ASLA’s ongoing efforts to increase diversity through its annual diversity summit, which brings together emerging African American and Latino landscape architects, but also called it like she saw it: “if we truly want diversity, we need to focus less on statistics and instead recognize and praise diversity and lift it up.” She pointed to the range of African American landscape architects doing important work, often under the radar. Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, professor at University of Washington, added that “landscape architects need to diversify their ranks or risk becoming a profession of colonialists,” coming in as white experts into communities of color.
“Landscape architecture can diversify in the next decade or two,” because just look at the huge gains that have been made to bring in more women over the past 50 years, argued Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor at MIT. She explained her multiple decades of experience helping African American communities in Philadelphia unearth their own landscapes, explaining how “long-term commitments are needed to build trust.” She wondered whether landscape architecture programs, with their semester-long field projects, can truly engage and learn from communities in which they dip for a short time. Jones Allen concurred, arguing that “we have to be careful how we get students into these communities, but it’s important to get them out of their comfort zone of the studio and face real people with real issues. Students are learning.” Allison Hirsch, ASLA, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, was less positive, arguing that “landscape architects tend to avoid issues of inclusion; there are few community-oriented design practices.”
For Spirn and others, the solution is more equitable design processes rooted in co-design and a participatory process with stakeholders. The goal should be capacity building among communities. “Make the design process transparent, not opaque,” argued Spirn.
Innovation: Move Beyond the Discipline
Adrian McGregor, Internatonal ASLA, a founder of McGregor Coxall in Australia, envisions a “new economy that trades in carbon, which will raise underlying values of ecosystems,” eventually resulting in a new “NASDAQ for the environment.” The growing importance of sequestering carbon in the environment will “put landscape architects at the table.”
Andrea Hansen, founder of Fluxscape, wants landscape architects to “move beyond the discipline, embrace holistic thinking,” and embrace open data. But she added that increasing innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “increasing complexity; we must keep it simple when we communicate to expand our reach.” To realize this reach beyond the discipline, Marcel Wilson, ASLA, founder of Bionic, called for more experimentation and risks, even if they result in failures. “We must incentivize innovation; landscape architects have become too reactive.”
Liat Margolis, ASLA, director of the Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab), University of Toronto, appears to be doing what Wilson called and Hansen have called for, as she works to create the next generation of green roof technologies. “We need to discover different material composites, bridge performance gaps, and exceed current green design benchmarks through experimental design.”
And Karen M’Closley, ASLA, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, similarly called for a “new set of sustainable design indicators, set-up pre-occupancy and post-occupancy surveys, and capture results in real-time.” Margolis finally asked: “where is the landscape architecture field’s think tank?”
The second day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future offered critical responses to the 23 declarations delivered on the first day of the event and looked ahead to the next 50 years. Afternoon sessions were divided into five panels, each representing a different aspect of landscape architecture: academic practice, private practice, public practice, capacity building organizations, and emerging voices. Each panelist gave a short talk before engaging in a group discussion, addressing audience-sourced questions, and offering perspectives on what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years:
Academic practice: Maintain the value of the “long view”
“Academics combine teaching, scholarship, and service” while “taking the long view: looking back, then to now, and forward,” argued University of Illinois professor Elen Deming, ASLA, moderator of the first panel. The panel largely resisted responding to the more-urgent cries for action from the first days’ declarations, with Jacky Bowring, professor at Lincoln University, cautioning, “there is power and danger in the language we use.”
The academicians saw the future of landscape as both cultural art and applied science. While Anu Mathur, ASLA, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, championed “design as a field of inquiry” in which “design tools and techniques are our academic science,” Susan Herrington, ASLA, professor at the University of British Columbia, reminded the largely-professional audience that design schools “do not train scientists,” citing long hours in the studio. Yet a question from the audience concerning the rising costs of education revealed that a lack of scientific rigor in landscape architectural research limits access to external funding that could help lower escalating costs.
Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor at Syracuse University, spoke to the power of design writing and criticism in spreading ideas. Other panelists noted the academy’s global reach comes from the increasingly international students it recruits and where schools build partnerships.
Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, professor and chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University, delivered four points the panel saw as critical to the future of academic practice: 1) commit to frameworks of learning, 2) avoid binaries and ideologies, 3) encourage student thinking and action, 4) increase diversity and range of students.
Private practice: Lead through collaboration and deep expertise
The private practice panel was moderated by Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), who emphasized that practitioners deal with the challenges of not only serving clients and achieving design excellence, but most also “run profitable businesses, all without harming the earth.” In their contribution toward a new declaration, the practice panel called for firms to become increasingly adaptable and gain deeper expertise.
Joe Brown, FASLA, consulting advisor at AECOM, insisted that “practices must respond to students’ ambitious ideals.” He later added that larger firms can act as teaching institutions as well, helping students achieve their new ideas. Thomas Balsey, FASLA, founder of Thomas Balsley Associates, agreed that in private practice, “a commitment to growth and evolution” can come from being open to what students bring. Through internships and the induction of recent graduates, Balsley offered ”student-led seminars” as a bridge between the ideas of the academy and the constraints of contemporary practice. Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, claimed “education in firms will be the biggest draw in future private practice.”
The panel addressed the importance of having both deep expertise and leadership skills as landscape architects manage complex, collaborative projects. Mark Johnson, FASLA, co-founder of Civitas, noted that being a leader isn’t just about being a “good generalist, but also an expert.” Balsley, who saw collaboration as the key for smaller firms to get big commissions, elaborated: “you need preparation and dedication to being an expert to be capable of collaborating.” Or as Gustafson put it, “to let landscape lead, you have to be the smartest person in the room;” but also be pro-active: “know your experts and demand what you need from them.”
Adding a more critical voice to the private practice panel was Keith Bowers, FASLA, founder and principal at BioHabitats. Noting he is often on the other side of these collaborations, providing ecological design services, Bowers re-asserted the importance of private landscape practices to lead by “turning around political and financial institutions.” He emphasized the importance of sticking to your environmental values and having “conviction, spirit, and humility in everything you do.”
Public practice: Change policy to achieve impact
Mia Lehrer, FASLA, president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, led the public practice panel, which advocated for their important role in “defending and expanding” landscape’s role, all the while “creating places of experience that stick with people throughout their lifetime.” Acknowledging the stigma of bureaucracy, Nette Compton, ASLA, senior director of ParkCentral and City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, said to “young professionals: you can get a lot done at a young age;” her own rise in the New York City parks department being but one example.
Joking that landscape architects are a “shade-loving species,” Mark Focht, FASLA, former ASLA president and senior official in Philadelphia’s parks department, joined others on the panel in suggesting landscape architects must “push themselves out there” into positions of power and “demand design excellence for under-served communities.” This point was affirmed by Deborah Marton, executive director of New York Restoration Project, who noted that “private dollars rarely go into low-income places.”
Going one step further was Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture for U.S. General Services Administration, who encouraged landscape architects to be “infiltrators and insurgents,” using policy as a mechanism to deliver action. Citing his involvement in the Obama administration’s efforts to restore pollinators to health, Gabriel thinks re-conceptualizing policy through ecosystem services “is where our greatest future and capacity lies.”
Picking up on the Beth Meyer’s keynote speech and Martha Schwartz’s declaration from the first day of the LAF Summit, Edward Garza, CEO Zane Garway and former mayor of San Antonio, challenged landscape architects to “embrace the political world” and even to run for mayor.
Capacity organizations: Design a path to increased diversity
As demonstrated by the summit itself, capacity organizations like LAF play a crucial role in forging the future of landscape architecture. Having heard all the declarations and much of the audience and Q & A, the panel, which included representatives from the LAF, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architecture (IFLA), Public Architecture, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), acknowledged how important diversity is to the future of the profession. Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, announced a multi-organizational effort entitled Mirroring the Nation, which is meant to attract and support more minorities to the profession, so that “our profession might better mirror the population it serves.”
The panel also called for landscape architects to have more impact on a global level. Leading the cause was Raquel Penalosa, ASLA, who is using her position as President of IFLA Americas, to “work globally in the service of localities. We must be humble and listen” closely to what communities want. And IFLA president Kathryn Moore said the world’s tens of thousands of landscape architects can have more impact by forming an “interdisciplinary vision” based in “common values,” particularly given the field is one of the fastest growing worldwide.
LAF President Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, and Somerville debated a bit on whether a “new narrative” was needed to achieve greater public awareness, with Deutsch calling for an entirely new set of messages, and Somerville arguing that “we are making progress with our current messages among some groups — like the older, wealthier, and better educated — but need to better reach diverse audiences. We need to get the messages out where they need to be.”
Emerging voices: Promote the next generation
With the help of Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, the emerging voices panel assembled a group of recent LAF Olmsted scholars. An appropriate ending to a summit on “the future of landscape architecture,” these future leaders each wrote their own declarations, which they then presented to the 700-plus crowd.
Leading off was a 2015 University Olmsted scholar Joanna Karaman, Student ASLA. Now working as a landscape designer at OLIN, Karaman challenged landscape architects to “be honest about how we represent what we build.” Her work in time-based media (Karaman is also working on a film about and for the LAF Summit) seeks to bring power to the profession through the use of videos that can make more accessible the volatility and transformational potential of landscapes.
Following Karaman was Nina Chase, ASLA, senior project manager at Riverlife in Pittsburgh, who advocated for “capitalizing on the resurgence of fun” through short-term pop-up projects that can serve as prototypes and catalyze public participation. Embracing the mantra of “test before you invest,” Chase suggested that developing projects incrementally is both good for creating fun, but also for building resilience to climate change.
Scott Irvine, a 2015 University Olmsted scholar from the University of Manitoba, delivered a message from the Canadian plains, cautioning that landscape architects should beware of “becoming overly urban,” and that too often now, “regionalism stops at the edge of the city itself.” Another caution was issued by Timothy Mollette-Parks, ASLA, associate principal at Mithun, who argued that “landscape can’t be formulaic, and we must not lose our dedication as designers.”
Wrapping up the panel was the 2016 National Olmsted scholar, Azzurra Cox, Student ASLA, a recent graduate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, who called for landscape architects to engage in what she calls “critical ethnography: design as a humanist, political, and narrative act.”
This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA,2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
Instead of laying down a layer of mulch to separate plants, let native plants grow into beautiful, layered masses, said Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World, at the Potomac Chapter of ASLA Gala in Washington, D.C. Rainer believes it’s possible to both boost biodiversity and achieve beauty through the use of “designed plant communities.” It’s possible to avoid creating a “weedy-looking mess,” but still harness the “adaptive ability of plants.” In fact, only by taking this approach can landscape architects and designers “reconstruct natural habitats in our cities,” which Rainer thinks should be their goal for the 21st century.
In the near future, Rainer sees a largely urban world dealing with the challenges of a changing climate. In the era of Anthropocene, there may be less pristine nature, which leaves cities and suburbs as a primary place to restore and reclaim ecosystems. “The loss of nature may represent a new beginning: an opportunity to re-wild our cities.” Rainer sees a future where skyscrapers have meadows, water treatment plants have wetlands, and highways are ecological.
So what’s holding all of this back? Rainer in part blames landscape architects and designers who are still pushing “formalistic arrangement of plants,” increasingly an anachronism in our world of biodiversity loss.
In a brief tour of landscape architecture history, Rainer explained that plants have long been used to “express order,” starting with the classical and French traditions. There was a pause in this approach with the English, pictureseque, naturalistic landscape style, which allowed for greater diversity of plant species. But that style lost favor amid the renewed formalism of Modernist landscape design, which “still dominates — with its mono-cultures of walls, carpets, stripes, and grids.” Modern formalism hasn’t been good for ecology. And while Rainer thinks that formalism may still have a place, more biodiversity must be introduced within this style.
All of those striking Modernist landscapes, and their contemporary variations, have had a “high impact on critters.” Birds rely on insects that rely on specific native plants. If you remove the plants from the equation, the whole ecosystem collapses. Today, “the lack of plant diversity is a real problem.” A way to introduce more diversity is through designed plant communities, which are “complex, adaptive systems” that require little maintenance. This new planting paradigm represents a shift from the Modernist approach of “plant as object” to a focus on “the power of systems.”
If landscape architects and designers are worried how all this will look, Rainer points out that the High Line, with its wild yet artfully-curated sets of plants, is one of the biggest draws in New York City. Rainer thinks this is because “there is nostalgia for the lost wild spaces,” and people want to see them in cities. But beyond the beauty of Piet Oudolf’s planting schemes on the High Line, those plant communities are also more resilient because they are more diverse. Oudolf let the plants “naturally interact.”
Sadly, too many landscape architects and designers still want to “mass, group, and separate” plants, instead of allowing the plants to interact. One recent LEED Platinum building achieved all its site-related credits by planting the plaza out front with just one native plant, which seems to completely miss the point. There, “plants were treated like a piece of furniture.” But in the wild, “plants are social and react to changes in their network. If you take them out of their network, they lose functionality and resilience.”
As an example of the resilience of nature, Rainer pointed to a strip outside his house in Arlington, Virginia, which gets inundated with salt in the winter and dog pee year round, but has a diverse, inter-mingled mass of 26 different “weed” species.
Too many landscape architects and designers also bring in generic soils and mulch, to ensure that “anything will grow there,” as opposed to using available local resources to plant layered native communities, which really act as “green mulch.” As Rainer notes, “you won’t find mulch circles in the forest.”
Rainer said bringing in too much soil and mulch runs counter to increasing biodiversity. “It’s actually the lack of abundance of resources that leads to increased diversity. If you look at landscapes with a great deal of infertility like desert landscapes, that’s where you’ll see diversity, and a harmony of plants adapted to place.”
Biodiversity can look designed and be beautiful. “We can reach a new intersection between ecology and horticulture. We can combine the best of the ecological plant traditions with the pleasing dynamics of aesthetic formalism. We can avoid weedy messes, but also let plant communities self-seed and move around.”
“Combining ecological function and design is now mainstream,” said landscape architect Margie Ruddick, ASLA, in a talk at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s no longer fringe. The culture has caught up.” And it’s caught up to where Ruddick, the winner of the 2013 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, has been for a while. A leading advocate of the “wild” landscape movement, Ruddick explained how she carefully balances ecological conservation and restoration with a strong sense of design.
In 2011, a New York Times article about Ruddick and how she was fined for growing “weeds” in her front yard in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia went “viral” among landscape architects and designers. She ultimately got out of the $75 fine by explaining to the judge the value of the wild plants she let live in her yard. “I told the judge: ‘This is actually not a weed. It’s Prunus serotina, a black cherry seedling. This is not a weed. It’s an oak tree, Quercus alba. The 10-inch weeds are rhubarb.’ ” Since then, Ruddick has become an advocate for ecological landscapes, explaining how important it is to create spaces for both people and nature.
Ruddick has turned her love of nature into a principled design approach, laid out in her new book Wild by Design: Strategies for Creating Life-enhancing Landscapes. In her talk, Ruddick walked us through some of her design principles — reinvention, restoration, conservation, regeneration, and expression — providing a few examples of each:
Reinvention: Ruddick first explained her complex project in New York City: Queens Plaza, which sits under a “tangle of elevated train infrastructure” that causes a constant, “horrible screech.” The plaza is where Riker’s Island releases prisoners at 2am with $3. It’s known as the “boulevard of death” because of the people who died trying to make it across the streets that had no crosswalks. “It was a sketchy, dangerous place.”
To make it more hospitable, Ruddick worked with a team at WRT, Marpillero Pollak Architects, and Michael Singer Studio, to find a way to embrace the infrastructure but also separate people from it with well-designed pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and arrays of trees. New crosswalks create safe routes for pedestrians, while artful concrete obstacles were created in other places to prevent deadly jaywalking.
Meandering paths, which were calculated for different kinds of circulation, lead people to a small park. There, the surrounding trees are so effective at noise attentuation they’ve reduced the screech by 25 percent.
New bike lanes are lined with vegetation, too, so that “riding through, you feel protected from the traffic, like you are in a park.”
For Ruddick, the key to the success of the new Queens Plaza is that “it’s wild, but not unkempt.” The city was never going to pay for an irrigation system, so she created wild-looking constructed wetlands that generate their own cooler micro-climates, offsetting the heat from the street and elevated tracks.
Patterned, hand-made pavers and curbs, which were designed with artist Michael Singer, are designed to let water out into those wetlands.
Paired with the ecological function of the wetlands, there is a rugged design language that is “carefully done, but not dolled-up.” Her goal was to maintain the “industrial character of the place,” in part by replicating the massive scale of the place with heavy-duty concrete slab pathways. “The dimensions and proportions help the landscape stand up to the big scale. It doesn’t feel faux.”
Restoration: In Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, Ruddick partnered with local Chinese landscape architects to design Living Water Park, which brings back a traditional Chinese garden approach to Chengdu, long known as the “city of gardens.”
Ruddick said Living Water Park was the first park in China to be explicitly designed to provide ecological services. It’s a water purification system: fountains remove solids from the water before it heads to wetlands where it’s filter and aerated. Ruddick believes it was also the “first park in China to showcase local plants.” The result is the park “feels like a refuge.”
Conservation and Regeneration: “There are so many special places that you don’t want to mess up.” In Western Ghats, India, Ruddick restored the forest landscape in the Shilim Retreat and Institute, but the project was really about “cultural conservation” and the relationship of the local people with the ecosystem. Ruddick was thrilled to be working there: “It’s a precious range, a UNESCO World Heritage landscape, and a biodiversity hot spot. You feel like you are in heaven there.”
To the restore the environment in this 2,500 acre-resort, Ruddick first focused on the slopes stripped by erosion brought on by monsoons and local tree-cutting. To strengthen local culture, Ruddick purposefully leaned on local horticultural talent and their knowledge of how to grow plants in the Ghats environment. These locals were hired to grow thousands of trees, which were replanted on the slopes, and then to dig slopes so water could reach the saplings.
Resort rooms are carefully nestled into the landscape, and spa facilities, within the rice fields. The resort features a new institute, with a center for sustainable development.
Expression: The Durst Foundation tasked Ruddick with creating a winter garden in the Bank of America in New York City. Working with WRT, and her mother, who was a sculptor, Ruddick decided to go up to fill in the tall interior space. She wanted to create something art-filled — “that’s also very important in my work.”
Inspired by the fern canyons of the Pacific Northwest, Ruddick and her mother created vegetated sculptural forms you can walk through and around.
She said many people go there to unwind and people who frequent the garden have told her that when they are there, “their blood pressure and stress levels go down.”
While many of Ruddick’s projects exemplify multiple design principles, Ruddick pointed to the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, a wonderful project she is now working on with WRT and Cloud 9, as the prime instance of how all her nature-inspired strategies come together.
She led a team of architects from Cloud 9, a Barcelona-based firm, to create an alluring canopy of 40,000 LEDs, all blinking according to a pre-set program. The canopy is a “sculpture composed of compression arches, tension cables, masts, and hanging cable mesh.” But it’s clearly inspired by sea creatures — from a whale opening its mouth, to the scales of a fish. “A lot of research went into marine animals and that comes out in the design.”
The new perimeter is only one facet of a broader revitalization of the aquarium, which includes a new light and soundscape on the boardwalk in front of the building, surrounding gardens, and more. Ruddick and her team also laid out a vision for how to better connect the institution to its waterfront, proposing the re-use of old jetties, constructing them as tidal pools that can attract sea life, so they can serve as an environmental education center.
Many more examples of her design principles can be found in Wild by Design.
Saving Water Is So Hot Right Now in Landscape Design – Wired, 3/4/16
“The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) asks hundreds of landscape architects around the U.S. to forecast the trends in outdoor design for the coming year. The point of the survey is to look beyond industry insider buzz and figure out what designers’ clients are actually asking for. This year’s results are in, and they show people are overwhelmingly concerned with water conservation.”
The Great Wall of Japan Divides a Country Still Reeling from 2011’s Earthquake – Lakes Mail, 3/5/16
“Within months, plans to build super seawalls of up to 17m in height along more than 400km of the coastline of the worst-hit Fukishima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures at a cost of $US10 billion were approved. The eventual aim is to stretch Japan’s seashore fortifications from a pre-existing 9,500km to cover 14,000km of its entire 35,000km coastline.”
A New Future Post-Chargers?– The San Diego Union-Tribune, 3/6/16
“Ever since the stadium opened in 1967, urban planners, politicians, Mission Valley residents and developers have eyed the site as an opportunity waiting to happen — to turn a centrally located, underutilized plot of city-owned land into something more than just an 18,500-space parking lot and occasionally used stadium.
Are We Greening Our Cities, or Just Greenwashing Them?– The Los Angeles Times, 3/6/16
“Architecture and urban design are in the throes of a green fever dream: Everywhere you look there are plans for ‘sustainable’ buildings, futuristic eco-cities, even vertical aquaponic farms in the sky, each promising to redeem the ecologically sinful modern city and bring its inhabitants back into harmony with nature.”
Houston Stakes a Claim as The Nation’s Emerald City– The Houston Chronicle, 3/9/16
“At a time when many cities are turning once-blighted infrastructure into iconic public spaces, Houston has emerged as a surprisingly fertile pasture – such a model green city that more than 1,300 landscape planners from across America will visit for a closer look this weekend.”
Gina Ford, ASLA, a landscape architect and principal at Sasaki Associates, keeps coming back to the same question: “How do we make the hand of the landscape architect visible?” Ford posed the question during a lecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design. She then identified two projects from the multidisciplinary Urban Studio she chairs at Sasaki that demonstrate just a few of the visible roles landscape architects play.
Ford and her team played the roles of planner and designer for Lawn on D in Boston, a 2.5-acre project that grew from Sasaki’s commission to create a master plan for the expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which Ford called “this ginormous spaceship that landed in the seaport.” In the middle of what was then surface parking and scattered industrial buildings, Ford’s team imagined new development and open space to create meaningful connections between the waterfront, convention center, and the historic South Boston neighborhood.
“The community kept wanting open space, open space, open space,” Ford said. “The question was: How do you create open space that will appeal both to convention-goers, who are here for a weekend, and also to the South Boston community that wants to see this as an extension of their neighborhood?” She said,“this idea of the Lawn on D emerged. We created a landscape that’s temporary, so we can test some ideas about what a park might be like here and what resonates.”
After only nine months for design, bids, and construction, the Lawn on D opened in 2014 on a parking lot abutting the convention center at a cost of $10 per square foot. Using what Ford called “modest means,” the Lawn on D features lawn, asphalt, tennis court paint, a canvas tent, light fixtures, and minimal plants. The plan was to keep it open for about 18 months, to see what users liked and didn’t like, and then to collect design and programming ideas for a permanent open space that would be incorporated into the convention center expansion.
18 months later, the convention center expansion has stalled indefinitely due to budget constraints. But in that time, the Lawn on D has become a Boston landmark. Sasaki’s simple design template — green edges framing a path, a paved lighted plaza, a tent, and a big lawn — accommodate food trucks, movie screenings, concerts, art installations, snow chutes, and other creative, Boston-themed events dreamed up by the firm HR&A Advisors. Ford said one of the art installations — Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture — has become the selfie capital of Boston.
Ford’s team now faces the enviable challenge of how to retrofit and make permanent a space that was meant to last 18 months but instead became a beloved community destination, enlivening a part of town that used to be simply a midpoint between other iconic Boston neighborhoods.
Another project of Ford’s urban design studio is A Delta for All, the winning proposal from the Changing Course design competition, which seeks to “re-imagine a more sustainable Lower Mississippi River delta.” Sasaki joined a team of specialists led by Baird & Associates to answer the central question posed by the competition brief: As the coastal wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico disappear at the rate of one football field per day, is it possible to save the cherished communities and ecosystems of the Lower Mississippi Delta?
Here the hand of the landscape architect was perhaps subtler but no less important. Ford’s role was to communicate — to consider the human element and then explain to stakeholders the function and impact of a proposed engineering marvel.
The plan devised by the team’s engineers and specialists, which boast expertise in everything from wetland structure and sediments to river navigation and oysters, essentially would undo the effects of human channeling of the Mississippi River. Ford explained that before human channeling, the river moved like a hose over the landscape, shifting its mouth over centuries, redistributing upstream sediments to create the wetlands as a series of ridge lines with freshwater basins in between. After human channeling, which created set channels, those valuable upstream sediments ended up running off into the Gulf of Mexico, bypassing the wetlands, therefore failing to replenish them.
A Delta for All proposes diverting the mouth of the Mississippi River and then feeding its water and sediment into neglected inter-tidal basins. Over time, “like spigots on a faucet,” the river mouth could be shifted to feed the inter-tidal basins in rotation, mimicking the natural shifts of the pre-channelized river.
If implemented, A Delta for All would be a complex undertaking, with major implications for communities and industries, natural ecosystems, and long-held ways of life. Ford’s team created graphics and a website to break down the issues, proposed solutions, and expected immediate and long-term benefits for coastal communities.
And they also tackled the challenge of possible re-locations for the wetland communities whose homes wouldn’t be spared. “Most of the federal programs to migrate people out of high-risk zones are just one household at a time, but as we came to understand, people in the delta live in these really tight-knit small communities,” Ford said. “So we suggested maybe there’s a way to phase their inland migration over time, providing some safe haven in the short term for small communities to move inland during storm events, and over time that inland safe haven could become a permanent home.” She added, “perhaps this is a way to start thinking about moving people in the right direction, over a larger period of time, together.”
These projects get to the heart of Ford’s mission to make the hand of the landscape architect visible, or as she also put it, to help people recognize “that landscape is more than the parsley around the pig.” How can we help people to value their landscapes in the same way they value their buildings? When landscape architects transform a community’s physical spaces — whether it’s at the scale of a new park in an evolving urban district or an entire region faced with deep ecological change — they can improve quality of life and nourish the human spirit. Surely that kind of impact will help people to see and value their landscapes and those who design them.
This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.
Five cities, both large and small, and eight states were winners of the first-ever National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC), which was organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Rockefeller Foundation. Communities impacted by major disasters in the past few years will receive $1 billion to develop “resilient infrastructure and housing projects.” While many projects boost resilience for coastal or river communities, there are also inland projects that aim to protect communities against fire and flooding. A majority of the projects include multi-use green infrastructure — systems that both provide flood prevention and control and public green spaces. Winning projects also focus on transit, housing, and jobs. Some 40 communities submitted proposals.
In a conference call, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said this investment in resilience will help communities become “safer, stronger, and richer” as they adapt to climate change, which is the “great challenge of the 21st century.” The past few years, he said, have seen “extreme and devastating drought, wildfires, flooding, and tornadoes.” And with 2015 now just confirmed as the hottest year on record, extreme climate events will only get worse.
Here’s a brief overview of the state and city winners, organized by the amounts they won:
Virginia: $120,549,000 for the Ohio Creek Watershed and Coastal Resilience Laboratory and Accelerator Center, which will develop “distributed green infrastructure projects, such as rain barrels and gardens, and combine them with coastal shoreline development to address flooding due to storm surge and torrential rains.”
Iowa: $96,887,177 for the Iowa Watershed Approach, an innovative program, which seeks to create local “watershed management authorities” that will assess hydrological and watershed conditions and create management plans for a more sustainable agricultural system.
Louisiana: $92,629,249 for its Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments Program, which aims to protect coastal wetlands, retrofit communities threatened by flooding, and reshape high-ground areas. The funds will also help a tribal community on Isle de Jean Charles–whose land has submerged by an amazing 98 percent since 1955–move to a new location.
California: $70,359,459 to pilot its Community and Watershed Resilience program in Tuolumne county, which was hit by wildfires in 2013. The program aims to create a environmentally and economically sustainable model for forest and watershed health that can be rolled out across the state.
Connecticut: $54,277,359 for a pilot program in the city of Bridgeport to test the state’s broader Connecticut Connections Coastal Resilience Plan, which seeks to connect “economically-isolated” coastal communities through a mix of green and gray infrastructure.
Tennessee: $44,502,374 for the state’s Rural by Nature, a federal, state, and local initiative to create resilient rural communities along the Mississippi River, which will restore two miles of degraded floodplain.
New York: $35,800,000 for public housing resiliency pilot projects throughout the state, which will test efforts to build resilience into low-income multi-family housing.
New Jersey: $15,000,000 for a regional resilience planning grant program, which will help local communities create their own plans to address their vulnerability to flooding.
New York City: $176,000,000 for coastal resilience in Lower Manhattan and efforts to protect public housing projects.
New Orleans: $141,260,569 for the city’s first-ever Resilience District in Gentilly, which will include coastal restoration, new parks and green streets, and workforce development initiatives.
Minot, North Dakota: $74,340,770 for an integrated approach to manage climate change and flooding.
Shelby County, Tennessee: $60,445,163 for its Greenprint for Resilience program, which will build a connective set of green infrastructure projects to increase protection against future flooding while creating trails and recreation areas.
Springfield, Massachusetts: $17,056,880 for an Urban Watershed Resilience Zone, which will focus on jobs, restoring affordable housing, and the creation of a new distributed heat and power plant in the event of a grid failure.
Green infrastructure, which involves using designed natural systems to provide a range of ecosystem services, is a primary area of investment, said Harriet Tregoning, who leads resilience efforts at HUD. “Lots of the projects feature green infrastructure. But we used a benefit-cost analysis to ensure that green infrastructure offers more than one benefit–not just stormwater management.” As Tregoning explained, HUD encouraged the project teams to come up with ways that “green infrastructure for stormwater managment or flood control could double as a park or greenway, bicycle or walking path.” The goal is to “capture all the social co-benefits.”
Christian Gabriel, ASLA national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA) and one of the evaluators of the proposals, argued that the process also encouraged new approaches to deal with these complex, multi-faceted problems: “Great planning and design necessarily cross political and geographic jurisdictions. When multi-purpose projects are conceived from inception as trans-disciplinary, they more effectively act as force multipliers in communities.”
He added that the “competition asked proposers to not only provide compelling physical solutions but also propose new working relationships and create resilient models for collaborative work between governments and civil society.”
While the $1 billion is a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s needed, NDRC is an important expansion of the Rebuild by Design competition, which dedicated $920 million to improve the resilience of the communities hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy, as it may show this competitive financing model can work nationally as well. The NDRC involved some 25 federal agencies, including 100 experts, and it took 16 months to review the proposals and select the winners. What’s needed in the future is a scaled-up annual process, which is something we hope the next administration will take up.
Many more communities need help with resilience, or there will soon be more Isle de Jean Charles, more looking for a new home.