How Essential Is Construction During the Coronavirus Pandemic? — 3/30/20, Curbed
“While some cities and states are shutting construction down, others are granting exceptions, particularly where it relates to the nationwide housing shortage. Meanwhile, industry groups are pushing for federal-level designation of construction as an essential business.”
“Why ferns? Because some are 350 million years old.” The world’s oldest living plants show the incredible resilience of nature’s best designs. Looking closely at ferns under a microscope, Washington, D.C.-based artist Sophia McCrocklin found that their “spores are in fact little springs,” perfectly engineered for propagation over the megaannums.
McCrocklin grew up in Kentucky. Appalled by coal companies strip-mining the landscape, she decided to fight them and became an environmental attorney. At the same time, McCrocklin explored her interest in fiber art and began showing in galleries and Ky Guild of Artists.
Her interest in ferns started about six years ago by chance. “I have always loved trees and had never thought about ferns. But I was on a hike one day in Rock Creek Park and had to go around a tree that had fallen. As I was scrambling around the log, I came face to face with a fern. It was winter and the fern was the only thing green out, so it caught my attention.”
She had been out in the forest looking for something to make in 3D, so when she got home she cut off a branch of a Boston fern in her house. She ended up replicating a stalk that was 3-4 inches long and showed people, but they were “not impressed.” She realized she needed to make a fern much larger so that people would notice it as much as they do a tree.
Someone told her that there were many types of ferns at Dumbarton Oaks Park (DOP) in Washington, D.C. Landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who designed the space as the naturalistic companion to the formal gardens above at Dumbarton Oaks, had planted 8 types, but there were also 7 others native to the area.
After speaking with DOP Conservancy staff, including landscape designer Ann Aldrich, the park’s resident plant expert, McCrocklin started to catalogue and investigate the ferns. She then decided to undertake a series of large-scale art works, organizing them into categories: Farrand’s ferns, other native ferns, and inspired ferns, which include some of her early explorations. She later became the park’s first artist-in-residence.
McCrocklin essentially photocopies the ferns and blows them up to a very large scale. She also looks at ferns under a microscope at the Smithsonian’s US Herbarium to ensure the details of the plant scale up accurately.
In Annapolis, McCrocklin purchased junk Dacron boat sails, a durable polyster material, for around $1 a pound. She cuts ferns out of the Dacron, sews them, and inserts copper wire to support the stalks and leaflets. Color is added through acrylic paint or pencils. Spores are made of anything from mustard seeds to beads of glass. The fuzzy parts of the ferns’ stems crafted from shredded canvas fiber or sometimes cotton. “I try whatever works.”
Each is then mounted on a heavy canvas board, or otherwise it would collapse. The canvas is painted with a cherry blossom pattern, reflecting how they can be seen in spring in Dumbarton Oaks Park.
Each fern takes about 6 months and is either 4.5 feet square or approximately 2.5 feet wide by nearly 7 feet tall.
Some are more challenging than others to engineer at large sizes. Sword ferns like the Boston or Christmas fern, which have one stalk with attached leaves, are relatively straightforward.
Tassel ferns, on the other hand, are like small trees, with many branches, each with leaves. “They are very time consuming. If I had tackled tassel ferns in the beginning, I’m not sure I would have done this project,” she said, only half-joking.
After spending many years with them, McCrocklin has grown to love ferns. By enlarging them and making them such tactile works, she wants to convey how important they are.
“We easily look up at big trees because they are magnificent and awe-inspiring. We rarely look down at ferns, but the loss of these plants and the forest’s understory is the canary in the coal mine.”
She said some areas of Maryland fence out deer. The result is a “dense and lush” understory. But in D.C., where deer roam, “there is just bare ground, which is bizarre.”
“I want to make people aware that the understory is vital to the health of the forest. People need to pay more attention to the little things, as they signal the condition of our ecosystems. A forest may look healthy if it is filled with trees, but trees are really the last to go.”
McCrocklin’s exhibition, which was to be free and open to the public in early April, has been cancelled due to COVID-19 and will be rescheduled for next spring or fall. Explore her work at her website and on Instagram.
Landscape Prize Honors Cornelia Hahn Oberlander – The New York Times, 10/3/19
“Cornelia Hahn Oberlander is widely regarded as the grande dame of landscape architecture. Now she is the inspiration for a new biennial $100,000 international landscape prize established by the Cultural Landscape Foundation. The prize is named in honor of the 98-year-old Ms. Oberlander.”
Amid the Smoke of a Burning Amazon Rises the Specter of the Artist Roberto Burle Marx – The Washington Post, 10/3/19
“He was a landscape architect, a painter, a ceramist, a textile artist and more. But it was his other and lesser-known incarnations, as a plant explorer and conservationist, that came sharply into focus as the exhibition played out in the botanical garden’s grounds, conservatories and galleries in the Bronx. The reason: The Amazon is on fire.”
8 Notable NYC Projects Designed by Latino Architects – Curbed NY, 10/4/19
“A principal at James Corner Field Operations, Puerto Rican landscape architect Isabel Castilla worked as the lead designer and project manager for the High Line at the Rail Yards, which opened in 2014.”
Student, Landscape Architects Create 1967 Fire Memorial – Cornell Chronicle, 10/8/19
“A new memorial in the center of campus, created this summer and designed by a landscape architect student, serves as a contemplative reminder of eight students and a professor who died in a tragic fire in 1967 at the off-campus Cornell Heights Residential Club.”
AN Rounds Up the Best Landscape Architecture Lectures Nationwide– The Architect’s Newspaper, 10/10/19
“America’s top architecture and design schools are filling out their lecture series line-ups with leading thought leaders in landscape architecture and design. Coast-to-coast, AN has selected six of these can’t-miss lectures that delve into issues such as climate change, urban beautification, the ecology of memory, and more.”
In the global scramble to reduce carbon emissions, planting more trees is always near the top of the list of solutions. Pegged as a low-cost, natural, and scalable approach, projects like the Great Green Wall in North Africa, Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, and New York City’s Million Tree Program raise the bar for this climate change mitigation strategy. While a new scientific study found there is untapped potential for carbon sequestration through planetary reforestation, other researchers are concerned about how growing new forests could reduce the focus on preserving existing old growth forests or negatively impact the water supply in developing countries.
The recent study published in Science, led by Thomas W. Crowther at ETH-Zürich, posits that an increase in 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) of new forests, an amount that would cover about 14 percent of habitable land, could sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. This means a forest roughly the size of the United States or China could sequester more than five times the annual carbon output of the planet.
Under current climate conditions, the Earth could support a maximum of 4.4 billion hectares (10.9 billion acres) of forests. Approximately 2.8 billion hectares (6.9 billion acres) are currently forested. This leaves 1.6 billion hectares (4 billion acres) were additional forest could be planted. The research team removed land used for crop-based agriculture or cities,”which are necessary for supporting an ever-growing human population,” leaving 0.9 billion hectares (2.2 billion acres) available for forest restoration.
Across the lifetime of these proposed new forests, the trees would sequester 205 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. For reference, we have released 1,510 gigatons of carbon to date (as of 2015), and some 55 percent of that has been sequestered by oceans and plants.
A sequestration strategy of this magnitude would make a sizable dent in the total carbon released into the atmosphere, but needs to be matched with reductions in fossil fuel use and other major forms of greenhouse gas emissions. The World Resources Institute (WRI) reports that 37.1 gigatons of carbon were released in 2018 alone. At this rate, more carbon will be released than can be captured by the new forests during the 50-100 years it will take for the trees to mature.
The research team is correct in asserting that global tree restoration is “our most effective climate change solution to date,” but some researchers fear that addressing one warning light may turn on others.
For example, focusing on planting new forests instead of preserving old growth trees can have negative impacts. Large, old trees, which support greater biodiversity and sequester more carbon than younger trees, are “declining in forests of all latitudes,” according to a 2012 study. Old growth forests are able to sequester more carbon than their younger counterparts because they are still rapidly growing and increasing their carbon storage capacity. Preserving older forests while implementing massive reforestation efforts would yield the greatest potential for carbon capture and forest ecosystem health.
Protecting large old trees is an important part of the climate mitigation effort, and something that landscape architects working at a variety of scales can support. Every reforestation effort, even in an urban park, should take into account existing trees and the role they play in ecosystems.
Trees need water to thrive. The renewed call for mass reforestation across the globe has some researchers worried about the effect this will have on local water supplies.
In a recent study published in Nature, Jaivime Evaristo and Jeffery J. McDonnell examine the impact of forest management practices, such as deforestation, conversion into agricultural land, regrowth, and afforestation (growing new forests), on the availability of water in watersheds. The study develops a vegetation-to-bedrock model, which considers the geology of a given region in relation to its capacity to store water.
The researchers found that deforestation and conversion of forests into agricultural land increases the volume of water present in almost all watersheds, while regrowth of forests and afforestation reduced the volume of water. “The vast majority of the water loss in afforested and reforested areas is from evapotranspiration, which is a combination of evaporation from soil and other surfaces and transpiration from plants.”
Afforestation and deforestation have the largest impacts on streamflow in watersheds. Deforestation can cause flash floods, but reforestation can lead to droughts.
The data also shows the percentage change in tree cover is correlated to the socio-economic status of a country. Developing and least developed countries lose the most tree cover while developed and emerging countries lose the least. The researchers think this correlation between tree-cover change and economic status “suggests that countries that have infrastructure in place for capturing and storing water may be least vulnerable to possible water supply shortages associated with planting schemes.”
Furthermore, the research team concludes the magnitude of a forest management technique is correlated with the water-yield response. Reforesting nearly 14 percent of the landmass is a massive change, one that would surely have consequences for local communities and ecosystems.
The researchers recognize their streamflow analysis could be used most prudently “for re-calibrating the cost-benefit matrix of climate change mitigation schemes (for example, planting and removal) in different geo-climate regions around the world.”
The Architecture of Trees was first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982. This “scientific tome” and “original ‘labor of love and obsession'” has been re-issued by Princeton Architectural Press in all its arboreal glory.
The book features 212 trees species depicted through 550 intricate quill-pen illustrations, each drawn to 1:100 scale. A handy paper ruler is included to help readers better understand the full breadth of these beauties. Each tree is depicted with and without foilage, showing summer and winter forms. The shape of each tree’s shadows and the hues of their seasonal color are also vividly conveyed.
According to an introduction to the new edition by Andrea Cavani and Guilio Orsini, curators of the Cesare Leonardi archive, Leonardi studied at the University of Florence, which encouraged a “liberal interpretation of the discipline of architecture, an interpretation that abandoned schematic rationalism and instead was open to visual art, design, landscape, graphic design, communications, philosophy, and sociology.”
In Florence, Leonardi interacted with trees he didn’t recognize. “Their sizes and shapes impressed him, and he felt ‘more drawn to them than to architectural forms.'” While creating a landscape design for a new city park in Modena, he realized that “it would be impossible to design a park without a deep understanding of its elements, meaning trees.”
But he found that just reading about trees wouldn’t cut it; he needed to more deeply understand them. In the areas surrounding Florence and Modena, he “studied specimens, photographed them, and took note of their names and dimensions; and, then, with an eye to using them in his plans, he drew the trees in India ink on transparent film, using photographs for guidance and working on a scale of 1:100.”
Drawing, Cavani and Orsini argue, enabled Leonardi to isolate the tree from its surroundings, focus on its architectural elements, and clearly depict the features that make a species unique. Over time, Leonardi found that climate, exposure, and soil conditions impacted the growth rate and character of specimens, so he accommodated for those differences, too.
Cavani and Orsini note that The Architecture of Trees wasn’t just a result of tree appreciation, but used to support a series of landscape projects in Italy, including Parco della Resistenza in Modena, swimming pool complexes created in Vignola and Mirandola, and a study for the expansion of the Modena cemetery.
The tree studies were also brought to the design of Parco Amendola in Modena, which opened in 1982. Leonardi and Stagi chose trees based on their “size, shape, shadow, and their changing colors over the course of the year.” A 40-meter (131-foot)-tall sundial tower was designed to “illuminate the center of the park at night with a multiple rotating projector that completed one full turn every hour, creating shadows that morphed continuously.”
Those shade studies are included in the beginning of the book, followed by a color analysis, and the drawings of the trees themselves, which are organized by botanical families, genera, and species. At the end, detailed drawings of tree elements — branches and leaves — are included with relevant notes about how the trees change over their lifespan, their fruit, their smells, and planting notes.
While the publisher honors the original edition’s organization, moving back and forth between the color analysis, drawings, and detailed drawing notes simply using plate numbers and trees’ Latin names can be a chore. It takes some digging to find the English or common names as well.
In the forward, Laura Conti writes that trees are increasingly critical to making cities more humane and resilient to climate change. And urban leaders need to adopt policies and regulations to enhance the quality of green spaces.
But to actually design and build beautiful and functional urban green spaces, landscape architects and designers must first understand the form and nature of trees, which are inherently malleable. “If man is going to ask trees to help him survive in this prison he has constructed, he cannot simply rely on that plasticity, but must acquire information about the characteristics that each tree inherently assumes in an area’s climate.”
“Competent” landscape architects then naturally take into account “a tree’s size and shape, the pattern of branch growth, the look of leaves in different seasons, and the amount of shade it offers.”
These timeless botanical drawings help us see the aesthetic value of trees themselves — complex, living objects that define the quality and character of any designed landscape.
If you are looking for a unique book to give as a gift or just one for yourself to delve into over the winter break, explore THE DIRT’s top 10 books of 2018, our picks for the best on the environment, cities, and landscape:
In this delightful book by Jonathan Drori that features magical drawings by Lucille Clerc, the history of different tree species around the world comes alive. For thousands of years, humanity has depended on trees for food, medicine, and companionship.
Participatory design is “hands-on democracy in action,” argue the editors of the impressive book. Participatory design (also known as cooperative or co-design) is a process in which a designer actively involves all stakeholders in a design process. The editors call for making participatory design “truly democratic.” Furthermore, it must become “contextual, open, experiential, substantive, and holistic.” Read the full review.
This monograph provides real insights into the design process of Seattle-based firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN), making it one of the best of this format. Thaïsa Way, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, partnered with GGN to dig deeper into how the firm has used “creativity and problem-solving” to “make and shape memorable places.” Read the full review.
Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with this book, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.
Edward Tufte, the world’s best known information designer, said Charles-Joseph Minard’s statistical map of Napolean’s 1812 invasion and then retreat from Russia was the greatest information graphic ever made. In this intruiging new book, author Sandra Rendgen uncovers the man who made the graphic as well as his many data visualization innovations. Read the full review.
Julian Raxworthy, a landscape architect and senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, calls for the “integration of landscape architecture and gardening. Each has something to offer the other: Landscape architecture can design beautiful spaces, and gardening can enhance and deepen the beauty of garden environments over time.”
Journalist Elizabeth Rush takes readers on a journey to places where sea level rise is already having an impact — from the Gulf Coast to Miami, New York City to the Bay Area. “For many of the plants, animals, and humans in these places, the options are stark: retreat or perish in place.”
For those who enjoy a deep dive into history, this book edited by Thaïsa Way, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, offers a rich exploration of how cities and rivers have shaped each over throughout the centuries. The intertwined history is also viewed through the lens of climate change and resilience. River City, City Rivers is the end-product of the excellent 2015 symposium on river cities at Dumbarton Oaks.
Roberto Burle Marx stands as one of the towering figures of 20th century landscape architecture, yet he left relatively little in the way of writing that describes, defends, or otherwise elucidates his work. A new collection of lectures, edited by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, helps fill that void. Read the full review.
This excellent book by landscape architects Catherine Seavitt Nordenson and Guy Nordenson and architect Julia Chapman, draws on years of research in design, art, policy, and engineering to argue for a new vision of our coasts. Structuresof Coastal Resilience is a significant contribution to the body of research on this topic. Read the full review.
Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs. And if you are based near Washington, D.C. we also recommend checking out the National Building Museum’s world-class book store.
“On a spiritual level, it’s about preserving the interconnectedness of all living things, the tapestry of life. Some small creatures may seem insignificant, but everything has a purpose.”
In Sub-Saharan Africa, where Goodall has spent her career researching chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, forests are rapidly disappearing. According to the World Wildlife Fund, some 91,000 square kilometers of forest, an area three times the size of Belgium, has been lost since 1990. Deforestation has been caused by population growth, which has led to the expansion of farms and cattle ranches, and international logging companies.
Goodall remembers cruising over Gombe National Park in Tanzania in a small plane in the early 90s and being shocked to discover the extent of the deforestation near a zone where she was researching chimps. Local farmers had been cutting down the forest to plant crops, but soon the soils became overworked and infertile, so they would cut down more forest, repeating the cycle.
Conservation organizations and European governments have been purchasing vast swathes of the tropical rainforest in South America in order to protect it. But Goodall said in Africa, “purchasing land is usually not a solution. Instead, partnerships with local communities are key.” Communities near forests must be educated on more sustainable and intensive farming techniques that enable them to grow more food while also restoring soil fertility. Communities must have enough food and income if we expect them to protect forests.
The ever-increasing demand for beef is also threatening the world’s remaining forests. There are now some 1.3-1.5 billion cows on Earth that need to be fed immense amounts of grain. Goodall said “more grain feeds animals than people.” All that grain requires unsustainable amounts of land and water. One analysis found just a single pound of beef requires some 1,800 gallons of water if the entire food production cycle is considered.
For Goodall, vegetarianism is then critical to saving the forests. We must stop eating beef, as “we need forests for our spiritual and psychological development.” And we must preserve forests as habitat for Goodall’s beloved chimps and all the other vitally-important tree and animal species.
Goodall travels some 300 days a year in an effort to create hope for a more sustainable future. She has witnessed amazing restoration projects, often including indigenous people. Indigenous people are key to forest conservation because “they understand forests and don’t overpopulate, anymore than chimps do.”
She added that planting trees through massive reforestation efforts is prohibitively expensive in most developing countries. “Leaving land fallow works best; the trees come back.”
Lastly, this global environmental phenonemon reiterated that people need to change their diets and eat less beef. Baldwin asked: “Are people ready for that?” Goodall believes so. “Even in Texas, you can now easily find a vegetarian restaurant. You aren’t looked at like you are some weird freak, some tree hugger.”
In reality, a recent Gallup report found just 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian and 3 percent are vegan. In contrast, some 29 percent of the population of India is vegetarian.
In a related session, Carole Saint Laurent, deputy director of global forests and climate change with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said her organization is helping countries achieve the Bonn Challenge, which aims to restore 160 million hectares of degraded or deforested land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. (For reference, 150 million hectares is about four times the size of California).
Today, some 7.6 million hectares are lost each year to cattle ranches and farms, and pressures on forests will only increase as the Earth’s population hurtles towards 10 billion. To protect forests for the long term, IUCN and other organizations have launched the 30 x 30 Challenge, which has brought together many important players across sectors. The goal is deeper economic, environmental, social, and cultural changes in land use.
Naoko Ishii, head of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which steers billions towards climate and environmental projects in developing countries each year, believes the 30 x 30 Challenge can “transform global food and agricultural systems.”
GEF will be putting a half billion dollars to this effort over coming years. “We need to produce 300 percent more food with population growth. This production expansion is a huge challenge for forests, and the problem is particularly acute in Africa.” Solutions will require more “science-based planning at the landscape level” in order to “get out of fragmented, small-scale actions.”
Across the United States, there has been a five-fold increase in wildfires over the past few decades. In 2017 alone, there were some 100,000 wildfires that burned some 10 million acres. With climate change, the zone in which trees burn has increased by two-thirds.
At Science to Action Day, an event associated with the Global Climate Action Summit, in San Francisco, Patrick Gonzalez, principal climate change scientist with the U.S. National Park Service, said “a century of suppressing wildfires has built up fuel in forests.”
When all fires are suppressed, smaller, more frequent fires can’t clear out dead trees and underbrush. The result is accumulated flammable biomass that eventually explodes into unmanageable conflagrations.
Many state-level forestry departments have suppressed fires because more and more communities are now living in — or close to — areas that once frequently burned.
It’s an inherently risky and short-sighted approach to development. And communities in these wildfire zones aren’t just risking their property but also their long-term health.
Kari Nadeau, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, argued that “there is no safe distance from a wildfire.” Inhaling smoke itself is hazardous. But blazes that consume homes and garages filled with household cleaners like Drano release other dangerous particles into the atmosphere.
“Even one part per million” of toxic wildfire smoke negatively impacts those highest at risk — children, the elderly, and those with asthma.
After five days of wildfires in California, the number of hospital visits for asthma attacks went up a whopping 400 percent. And the number of strokes increased by 42 percent. Being exposed to just one wildfire’s worth of smoke is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for a year. “That’s the real data.”
Nadeau said there is important research being conducted on prescribed burns, which are smaller, more contained fires that revitalize forest ecosystem function.
“We need to support the increased use of this practice. It can be done safely.” When small, fires give off smaller amounts of nasty pollutants. Burns can also be scheduled when air pollution levels are low and the wind is blowing away from neighboring communities.
In the interim, there is a need for better early warning systems for communities at risk from fast-moving wildfires. Ben Lee Preston, director of infrastructure resilience at RAND, said remote sensing technologies can be installed in the landscape to give communities and firefighters more advance notice. We would add there is a need to use landscape design to fireproof homes and relocate homeowners in very high-risk areas to other locations.
Wildfires are responsible for the majority of the carbon natural systems released into the atmosphere. But forests that have undergone a prescribed burn are estimated to release less carbon over time, given the controlled burn improves their overall ecological health.
Trolls live in caves, rocks, or mountains. They live long lives, are very strong, but are known to be slow and somewhat dim-witted. They aren’t fond of humans and have even been known to eat a few.
In Morton Arboretum in northern Illinois, six wooden trolls have taken over, thanks to the inventive Danish artist Thomas Dambo. Each is about 30-feet-tall, except for a reclining one that is 60-feet long, and made of recycled wood. These installations are part of Troll Hunt, an inspired exhibition that will take families on nature walks in search of these dangerous creatures.
Visitors can take a hike along a 6-7 mile route through the 1,700-acre arboretum to find all six trolls, drive or bike to them, or take a “troll tram ride.” There’s a fun troll hunt map that only adds to the sense of adventure.
Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, has called for bringing mythology back to our landscapes, to imbue them with deeper meaning that can connect us to stories from the past.
Through thousands of years of Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, trolls have been seen as powerful supernatural beings who are capable of great mischief.
They have been stirring our imagination for centuries — and in Morton Arboretum the myth is so much fun.
In the not too distant past, you could park a car in the midst of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) at California’s Yosemite National Park. That is no longer possible thanks to a recently-completed $40 million restoration by the National Park Service (NPS) in partnership with the Yosemite Conservancy and Seattle-based multidisciplinary design firm Mithun.
Now, visitors park at a newly constructed, 300-vehicle-capacity terminal two miles away and take a shuttle bus to a main entry plaza at the lower grove.
“Before, it used to be a pass-through area. People didn’t even really notice it,” says Mithun senior associate Christian Runge, ASLA, about the restored lower grove. “They saw a couple of big trees, but it wasn’t a place. Now, it’s the centerpiece of the whole project.”
This transformation didn’t happen for its own sake. Years of heavy visitor traffic and poor planning took their toll on the storied trees, raising alarm about their future health.
The giant sequoia, which grows to approximately 300-feet high and can live for thousands of years, is an endangered species. This tree occupies a narrow ecological niche only 260-miles-wide on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and requires specific environmental conditions to thrive. The Mariposa Grove is one of the few places on earth where the sequoia is able to reseed on its own.
“The Sequoias exist on the western slopes of the Sierras at a certain elevation, which is essentially at the rain-snow transitional zone,” says Runge. “If you go much lower, it’s all rain; if you go much higher, it’s all snow. That feeds the hydrology of these mountain wetland stream systems, which the sequoias tend to cluster closely around.”
“So, restoring hydrology and improving the natural hydrologic flow in the grove was really an important piece of the restoration puzzle.”
To achieve this, the design team removed the existing network of asphalt roads and paths, which were interfering with the grove’s natural drainage patterns.
One road that connected the lower and upper groves crossed streams and wetlands approximately 30 times, says Runge. “Those culverts were anywhere between 50-60 years old, and a lot of them weren’t even functioning anymore.”
In the place of asphalt and culverts, Mithun designed a series of elevated boardwalks and trails that allow for a variety of visitor experiences and do not interfere with the delicate hydrology needed to sustain the sequoias.
“If we keep those streams running and hope for the best with snowmelt, then we can imagine those populations will continue to be stable and hopefully grow into mature trees,” Runge says.
However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Giant sequoias are threatened by the effects of climate change, which could reduce the amount of groundwater available to the trees and make it more difficult for seedlings to survive.
Runge acknowledges that in the face of such forces, there is only so much that the project can accomplish.
“The best thing we can really do is improve and maintain the processes that keep the sequoias as healthy as possible in order to provide as much resilience as possible,” says Runge. “Improving those processes was really the focus of the restoration.”
Ensuring the survival of the Mariposa grove also required changes to the visitor experience. In addition to restoring groundwater hydrology, the elevated boardwalks also keep visitors at a distance from the trees in the grove’s most heavily trafficked areas.
“People want to get up close to them. It’s just a human, intuitive thing that you want to be able to do,” Runge says. But, “if everyone did that, there would be too much damage to the tree.”
Instead, Mithun created a series of loops that become progressively less contained as they lead further from the main entry plaza. “Each loop takes you further out and is closer to a wilderness experience. If you want to go up into the upper grove, that’s something that can only really be hiked into.”
In addition to the new trails, enhancements to the visitor experience include a new visitor center and comfort stations designed by Mithun architects Brendan Connolly and Susan Olmsted, ASLA.
While the design language and material choices were in some way constrained by the need to work within the rustic National Park aesthetic of stone and timber, Runge says the design team found room for creativity in the details.
“We didn’t argue about modern versus historic, but we did push for quality detailing and structural systems, thinking through stonework, and trying to understand what the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era standards were in reality versus just giving the impression of something being historic. Making something that is durable, long-lasting, and in some sense beautiful was the key goal for us both in terms of the architectural elements and site elements, like the boardwalk.”
For Runge, striking this balance between ecology and the visitor experience defined Mithun’s approach to the project. “Ultimately, I feel like we got there,” he says. “It feels like a transformed place.”