The Case for Austerity

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If abundance and variety characterize most gardens, then an austere garden is one marked by subtlety and restraint. Respectable qualities, especially in a society that aspires to opulence. But these same qualities make austerity much trickier to identify and thus admire. Marc Treib, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests in his latest book, Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint, & Attending, that we must attune our senses to recognize austerity and its value.

“Experiential richness does not depend on complex form or an abundance of elements. It is how we look, and what we want to see, that makes a garden,” Treib writes. Decouple ornamentation from beauty and austerity will have its day. Treib’s book is a vision of what that day might look like, with examples of austerity from the past and present, from art, architecture, and landscape design. Japanese gardens make several appearances (Treib has studied them extensively), but so do peat quarries in the UK, an experimental forest in Sweden, and Salgina bridge in Switzerland.

These varied examples of austere works beg the question, how does Treib define austerity? You might get a different answer depending on which page you flip to. “State less, imply more.” “Simplicity, reduction, and compression.” “Restriction in means.” These are all true, of course, but only constitute individual aspects of austerity. One might say, “You’ll know it when you see it.” The challenge Treib sets himself is attuning readers’ eyes to it.

Austere Gardens begins with a description of the musical score 4’ 33” by composer John Cage. The score is performed in front of an audience, although it requires no instrument, just the periodic disruption of silence. The performer relinquishes control to the audience. Shuffling of feet, heavy respiration: ambient noise comes to the fore. Silence becomes music and austerity delivers riches.

4’ 33” possesses an effortlessness common to many of Treib’s examples of austere works. Tactical mowing, cutting, digging, and occluding are economical strokes with outsized impact. Treib gives as an example the construction fence, hiding from passersby what lies beyond. “What has been screened, withheld, or removed often stimulates greater intrigue.” Closure and revelation. Achieving more with less can be interpreted several ways.

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Tactical mowing adds color to a path in a German meadow. // Image Credit: Oro Editions

Patience is essential to appreciating austerity, writes Treib. “Without taking the time to look, perceive, and perhaps to think, any rewards may be meager.” Even the mundane, perhaps especially the mundane, deserves a prolonged gaze. The austere beauty we’re witnessing, Treib tells us, may be intentional, inadvertent, or the result of time and its effects.

The essay’s organization will frustrate some readers who desire more structure. It is, as the title implies, a series of thoughts. One can read it in a sitting, feel refreshed by its ideas, and then wonder, “What was the overarching point?” A call for austerity and all that implies, certainly. And yet an absence can be felt after putting down Austere Gardens, the sense of a lesson left incomplete. In a way, the essay practices what it preaches, leaving room for the reader to close the circle.

Detroit Aims for Food Sovereignty

Plum street market garden / Jared Green
Plum street market garden / Jared Green

There are 165 acres of urban gardens and farms under cultivation in Detroit, Michigan. In a tour, Ken Weikal, ASLA, co-founder of the non-profit GrowTown and the firm Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, explained that everyone from Capuchin Monks to non-profit cooperatives, university labs to self-sufficient farmers, corporations to small businesses are involved in using Detroit’s vacant lands to produce food. The goals of these efforts are to increase food production “for Detroiters and by Detroiters,” generate new sources of income, and build community. The grand, long-term vision: “food sovereignty” for this resurgent rust-belt city.

A few farms we toured downtown were examples of corporate social responsibility efforts — spaces for company employees to volunteer. For example, an empty lot next to the MGM Grand casino and hotel in downtown Detroit was transformed into Plum Street Market Garden, where everyone volunteering the day we went was wearing an MGM employee t-shirt (see image above). The 2-acre garden produces 20 types of fruits and vegetables. MGM has invested some $600,000 in the project so far, and partnered with Keep Growing Detroit, a local non-profit, to hold some 60 community classes there a year.

Another example is Lafayette Greens, a nearly half-acre garden set in the empty lot where once stood the historic Lafayette building. The garden was financed and administered by Compuware Corporation, which has its headquarters a block away, but is now run by the Greening of Detroit, a non-profit. Designed by Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, a partner at Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, the market garden won an ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award. Weikal said the garden helped start the conversation downtown among everyone from policy-makers to school kids and tourists about the opportunities with urban gardening.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Heirloom apple trees line one edge of the garden. “They have ornamental, productive, and screening qualities.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Within the garden, raised beds, with smart benches at the end, grow a range of herbs and vegetables. “The beds are programmed like a museum exhibition but for flavor and color. They are vegetal exhibitions.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Sheds made of reclaimed wood house gardening tools and supplies.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Detroit’s bottom-up food movement was the focus of a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Ashley Atkinson, who runs Keep Growing Detroit, explained that urban farming and gardening is not a new thing in Detroit. In the 1890s, Republican Mayor Pinzen Stuart Pingree, who was elected to four terms, encouraged the poor and hungry to grow food. “He was the laughing stock of the country, but hunger was reduced dramatically.” Urban farming was seen as “low value, low education work,” but decades later, during World War I and World War II, nearly “every major city practiced urban farming.”

The mission of Keep Growing Detroit is food sovereignty in Detroit. “We want the majority of food vegetables in Detroit to be grown by Detroiters.” Her goal is to transform some 40 square miles of vacant land in the city into productive assets. Keep Growing doesn’t differentiate between “family gardens, school or market gardens.”

In 2003, Keep Growing Detroit started a garden resource program to grow seeds and transplants. They had to build this whole system from the ground-up, because “no one knew where to get these.” They now grow 250,000 organic transplants a year that are given away to the community. “We distribute them equitably” through local educational workshops and training sessions. In every district of the city, local farmers lead these training sessions. There are also tool sheds where hand tools and shovels can be borrowed for free, and compost centers where some 200 tons of compost worth $1.5 million is also distributed at no charge. And “we use shared work days and community events to build community infrastructure. Plus, we eat a lot together.”

Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit

Her group then formed Grown in Detroit, a collaborative network of some 80 gardeners and farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants. According to Atkinson, “some $100,000 is made and 100 percent of that money goes to the growers.” There is also a network of 1,400 community gardeners who help bring healthy food to the neighborhoods. They are part of an effort to establish healthy eating behavior among very young children. “If we can introduce healthy food recipes and cooking at a young age, we can impact them their whole lives.”

Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow
Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow

In 2013, the Detroit city government finally changed regulations so urban farming is now legal. While Atkinson considers that a win, she has a much broader vision: 25 percent of the 40 square miles of vacant land, which is some 5,000 acres, under cultivation. With that much farming, “we can produce 70 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruit consumed in Detroit and raise incomes.”

Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green
Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green

Devita Davidson, who heads communications for FoodLab Detroit, made the moral argument for local food production. “If you look closely at the supermarket, it’s a facade. The industrial food system is the site of injustice; the food system is failing so many people.” While she sees Detroit as the “comeback city,” she still sees major issues: 70 percent of adults are obese as are 40 percent of kids. “Detroit is dying from diet-related diseases.” She wants some of those locally-grown fruits and vegetables to be transformed into value-added products like ketchups, salsas, jams, and sauces. Her group’s innovative effort — Detroit Kitchen Connect, which was been lauded by Oprah Winfrey — enables local entrepreneurs to use restaurant, church, and other facility kitchens during off-hours to develop their products. Such a smart variation on the sharing economy, with food justice and social equity at its heart.

Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org
Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org

And Pashon Murray, a co-founder of Detroit Dirt, sees access to good-quality compost as central to the entire food sovereignty effort. She said Americans are incredibly wasteful, disposing of $218 billion in uneaten food, which is then dumped into landfills. “Some 52 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year, while 10 million tons is just left in the fields.” Much of that food waste can instead be collected and turned into compost, revitalizing soils in the process. Plus, “waste recovery equals revenue and jobs.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club

She has partnered with GM and Chrysler, collecting their food waste from factory cafeterias weekly and turning it into compost that is then distributed to local gardeners and farmers. To do this work, she hires ex-cons, “people we associate with dirt, the forgotten and left-behind.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub

Her dream is to raise enough funds for an “in-vessel composter digester” that will help her scale up compost production. She hopes to realize this in 2017. “Compost is the root of the soil, and soil is the foundation.”

An Urban Farm in Detroit Aims for Profit

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

In the Penrose neighborhood of Detroit, two landscape architects, partners in business and life, are testing out a new for-profit model: the market garden. While Detroit has acres of non-profit-run farms growing fresh fruit and vegetables that are then donated to communities, Ken Weikal, ASLA, and Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, who run GrowTown, want to show the residents of this poor community in Detroit and elsewhere that anyone can apply an intensive, efficient farming method to one-third of an acre, grow high-value produce in all four seasons, and make $50,000 – $70,000 a year.

But their market garden model is really just one component of a more ambitious plan they are leading in the community, with support from the Kresge Foundation, non-profits, affordable housing developers Sam Thomas and Cynthia and Joe Solaka, to create a “garden district.”

Penrose covers some 200 acres and about 335 homes, of which 10 percent are vacant. The area GrowTown and the developers are focused on, the Penrose Village housing community, comprises some 30 acres. The average income in the area is around $10,000 – $30,000 and some 26 – 37 percent live below the poverty line. Before GrowTown, a neighborhood design studio, got involved, there were few public spaces.

In 2013, GrowTown worked with school groups and architect Steve Flum to create a park, with neighborhood kids co-designing the layout and design of the space and the featured element: a serpent.

Penrose art park / Jared Green
Penrose art park / Jared Green

Across the street, the landscape architects worked with the kids to create a maze in the overgrown grasses of the empty lot, teaching them about history of these land puzzles in the process.

Penrose maze / Ken Weikal
Penrose maze / Ken Weikal

In both 2007 and 2013, sets of 30-plus affordable housing units were developed. Along with the later set of housing came a new farmhouse, a town meeting hall, which is right next to the demonstration market garden. There, Hagenbuch tends to her micro-greens every day, educating locals about how this intensive system works, and working alongside the Arab American and Caldean Council (AAC), which is also using the farm to educate the residents of Penrose about nutrition.

The farm will eventually be run independently by local farmers, but, in the meantime, Hagenbuch and Weikal are working hard to prove the four-season intensive growing model themselves, documenting all of their learning for a new toolkit funded by Kresge.

The tunnel house is open to the air in the spring and summer when it grows micro-greens, which sell great locally because they don’t travel well; tomatoes; and other high-value produce. In fall and winter, an extra layer of plastic is added to the top and the sides are closed up. Then, the mix changes to beets, kale, and swiss chard, which will grow in a Detroit winter, but at a slower rate.

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

Outside the tunnel house there are additional plots cultivated in warmer months. Future garden elements will include orchards, rows of berry bushes, and fruit-covered trellises.

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

For now, Hagenbuch sells her produce at local farmers’ markets, saying it’s too challenging to meet the stringent demands of restaurants’ timelines. While she earns hundreds per batch of micro-greens, she admitted that “it’s hard work to make money at this. You have to be very business-like about it.”

Micro-greens / Jared Green
Micro-greens / Jared Green

Weikal and Hagenbuch have a vision for these market farms taking root in a network in Penrose, creating a new kind of agricultural urban community. Weikal said: “If we had 10 of these market farms in Penrose, that’s a half million of year being generated in this community.”

They also think locals will buy the produce. “People want fresh food right in their neighborhood; they want to buy food from their neighbors,” said Weikal.

Still, they agree that there are some real obstacles, like a lack of understanding of their intensive SPIN farming method and a lack of commitment to these techniques. Furthermore, to really make this system work, farmers will need some fairly expensive equipment, like a walk-in cooler to store produce before market; a quick-green harvester, which enables growers to do 4 hours of micro-green harvesting in 5 minutes; and a flame weeder, which is needed to ensure weeds don’t sneak into empty plots. “There are some upfront costs associated with a tricked-out market garden,” Weikal explained. But all of this will be covered in the toolkit they are developing, and, hopefully, some loans or incentives can be offered to make these expenses less of a burden to new market farmers.

Weikal said that what they are trying to accomplish isn’t new. “In the 1880s, Paris had super-high density farms in the city. In the 20th century, during wars or disaster, many cities went to intensive farming. Today, in Cuba and Asia, a lot of food is grown in cities.” But he added that, “here in Detroit, where food is grown for social justice, the idea of farming for profit makes some people uncomfortable. ‘Is it inclusive?,’ they ask.”

But Hagenbuch and Weikal are thinking about long-term economic sustainability and a time when many of the foundations and non-profits have moved on to another city.

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

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A towering waterfall appears to fall from midair into the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles / Dezeen

The Forgotten Space Under this Sao Paulo Highway Will Become a Hanging Garden and ParkCo.Exist, 6/2/16
“When an elevated highway was built in the middle of downtown São Paulo in 1971, the city said it was attempting to improve traffic. Instead, congestion got worse. The two-mile stretch of road, called Minhocão (‘Big Worm’) is now one of the most polluted parts of a city where smog kills thousands of people a year.”

DLANDstudio Launches Phase 1 Design for Rails-to-Trails QueensWayThe Architect’s Newspaper, 6/2/16
“After years of debate over what to do with the 60-year old abandoned Rockaway Long Island Railroad (LIRR), the coalition has been moving toward the goal of converting 3.5 miles of the railroad—which extends from Rego Park to Ozone Park—into a park similar to the High Line.”

A Look at Apple’s Insanely Ambitious Tree-Planting Plans for Its New Spaceship Campus  – Venturebeat, 6/4/16
“While construction crews work furiously to finish Apple’s mammoth new headquarters in Cupertino this year, another critical piece of the campus’ design is taking shape 100 miles to the east.”

Olafur Eliasson Installs Giant Waterfall at Palace of VersaillesDezeen, 6/6/16
“A towering waterfall appears to fall from midair into the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles as part of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s latest exhibition (+ slideshow).”

Design Team Led by Mia Lehrer Picked for New Downtown L.A. Park The Los Angeles Times, 6/9/16
“A group led by landscape architecture firm Mia Lehrer & Associates has won a design competition for the 2-acre park, on the site of a former state office building adjacent to Grand Park at the foot of City Hall, city officials announced Thursday.”

His Landscape Designs Take an Artist’s (Quirky) VisionThe Los Angeles Times, 6/10/16
“If there were a competition for tackling out-of-the-ordinary landscaping projects, Mitch Kalamian, a landscape designer, would be on auto entry.”

Sensory, Universally Accessible Playground Designed for Chanticleer Park The Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/12/16
“The Santa Cruz Playground Project and Santa Cruz County Department of Parks, Open Space, and Cultural Services revealed designs Sunday for a $4 million wheelchair-accessible playground planned for Chanticleer Park in Live Oak.”

A Vision for Equitable Community Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16 – 31)

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NYC park overhaul / Chang W. Lee, The New York Times

Meet the Garden Designer Who Transformed Rio de Janeiro Wired, 5/18/16
“’You can’t talk about Rio de Janeiro without talking about Burle Marx,’ says Claudia Nahson, a curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City. ‘He shaped the city with public works.’”

The Hudson River Will Soon Have New Look as Construction Begins on Thomas Heatherwick’s Pier 55 Architectural Digest, 5/19/16
“The look of New York City’s waterfront—all 520 miles of it—has been steadily changing over the past few decades, with gritty industrial strips being transformed into recreational landscapes.”

Sites of Demolished Detroit Homes Used to Soak Up Water The Detroit News, 5/19/16
“But Detroit’s water department and Land Bank Authority as well as the University of Michigan turned four vacant city lots into gardens designed to corral stormwater.”

Park Designer Brought People to St. Paul’s Riversides The Washington Times, 5/23/16
“Driving down St. Paul’s Shepard Road, Jody Martinez glances to her left: houses. And to her right: the parks she’s been designing for nearly 40 years. Beyond that, the river; always the river.”

Overhauling 8 Parks, New York Seeks to Create More Inviting Spaces The New York Times, 5/24/16
“On Tuesday, the city announced that eight parks will undergo ambitious face-lifts that are about more than just rehabilitation — it is a plan that represents an evolution, officials said, in New York’s approach to parks by making these public spaces blend better and be more welcoming to their neighborhoods.”

The National Parks Have Never Been More PopularFiveThirtyEight, 5/25/16
“As the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its centennial in August, the national parks have never been more popular.”

The Best Landscape Designs Don’t Require Hours of Watering and Maintenance The Washington Post, 5/26/16
“Pity the poor yard. It receives constant care and attention during the spring and summer, but let a few dry spells or heavy downpours mar its beauty and efficiency and suddenly it’s the bad guy.”

Thomas Rainer: There Are No Mulch Circles in the Forest

Planting in a Post-Wild World / Timber Press
Planting in a Post-Wild World / Timber Press

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.”

Designed plant communities / Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
Designed plant communities / Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

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.”

ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Iwan Baan
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Iwan Baan
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Mercer Country Master Gardeners
ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. High Line, Part 2 / Mercer Country Master Gardeners

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.

Hell strip in Arlington, VA / A Way to Garden.com
Plant strip in Arlington, VA / A Way to Garden.com

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.”

Sonoran desert plant communities / Gateway to Sedona
Sonoran desert plant communities / Gateway to Sedona

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.”

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

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Adriaan Geuze at Governor’s Island  / The New Yorker, Illustration by Eda Akaltun

From Tahrir to Tiananmen, ‘City Squares’ Can’t Escape Their History – NPR, 5/1/16
“From Mexico City’s Zócalo to Rome’s Piazza Navona, public squares have always been a vibrant part of urban life. After visiting Italy a few years back, editor Catie Marron began thinking about the different roles these public spaces have played.”

Google Launches New Views of Houston Parks The Houston Chronicle, 5/3/16
“Although much of the Houston Parks Board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 project is still being developed, you now can take a virtual tour of the massive hike and bike trail system from anywhere in the world. The tour was created through a partnership with Google, which today launched Street View images of more than 80 Texas attractions via its Google Maps application.”

Revisiting the Constructed Edens of Roberto Burle Marx The New York Times, 5/12/16
“You get back to Eden by preserving what exists of the original, or by creating new versions of your own. Roberto Burle Marx, the great Brazilian landscape architect, did both.”

French Landscape Firm Wins Pershing Square Competition with Call for ‘Radical Flatness’The Los Angeles Times, 5/12/16
“The newest plan to remake downtown L.A.’s Pershing Square is elegantly simple. If only the same could be said for the process that will now be required to get it approved, paid for, and built.”

The Ups and Downs of Vertical Gardens The National, 5/13/16
“Vertical gardens, or living walls, are springing up across the UAE, as innovative new technologies, coupled with increased horticultural understanding, have expanded the potential design permutations of this living art form.”

Play Ground The New Yorker, May 2016 Issue
“The landscape architect Adriaan Geuze hopped onto the grass, cupping his hands to his ears. ‘You can hear a million insects,’ he said, in his vowelly Dutch accent.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (March 16 – 31)

A new public square in the Fawwar refugee camp in the West Bank, June 2014 / Adam Ferguson/The New York Times/Redux via NY Review of Books
A new public square in the Fawwar refugee camp in the West Bank, June 2014 / Adam Ferguson/The New York Times/Redux via NY Review of Books

Municipality Updating Anchorage’s Dated Land Use Plan Alaskan Public Media, 3/17/16
“The most-recent projections – which have been adjusted since the price of oil has declined – anticipate Anchorage’s population will grow between 15,000 and 45,000 people within the next 25 years.”

A Closer Look at Oceanwide Center’s Proposed Public Open Space Hoodline, 3/22/16
“The team behind the massive office, hotel and residential development proposed for First and Mission streets, Oceanwide Center, has grand plans for their open space requirement. If approved, 47 percent of the project’s ground-floor area will be privately-owned public open space, accessible to anyone.”

Why Landscapers Are Planting Crops on the Arch GroundsThe St. Louis Dispatch, 3/22/16
“Crews planted about 400,000 last fall. By the end of October, tufts of bright green had sprouted in unruly rows all over the national park. They’ve now largely decomposed. But they did what they were supposed to: They sent their thick tap roots almost two feet deep. They froze this winter and died. And they left hundreds of thousands of long, skinny holes in the ground, softening soil that has been compacting for decades.”

Shade Plants: Gardening in the Dark The Chicago Tribune, 3/24/16
“Sunlight is overrated. Sure, lilacs, and lavender need hours of sunlight to thrive. But give us shade plants such as hostas, ferns, tree peonies, and lacecap hydrangeas luxuriating in a dappled shade, and we’re over the moon.”

Child’s PlayThe Hindu, 3/25/16
“Sourav Kumar Biswas, while studying landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, wrote, ‘By placing children as the focus of our planning and design processes, we will be designing for those who are the most vulnerable. A neighborhood that improves the ability of children to move and play freely while growing up without health risks is also one that is safe for women and accessible to the old.’”

The Craving for Public Squares The New York Review of Books, April Issue
“The twenty-first century is the first urban century in human history, the first time more people on the planet live in cities than don’t. Experts project that some 75 percent of the booming global population will be city dwellers by 2050.”

A Sunken Skyscraper in Central Park Is the Worst Idea in HistoryCityLab, 3/26/16
“Never mind that tearing up Central Park is a non-starter. Set aside the fact that it’s one of the most beloved parks in the world. Disregard all the structural and infrastructural reasons why it would be next to impossible to strip Central Park down to bedrock.”

Lynn Wolf; Brought Color and Zest into Lives of Others The Boston Globe, 3/30/16
“Ms. Wolff, who combined a seriousness of purpose with a serious pursuit of fun, died March 20, the day after turning 60, in Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers of cancer that had metastasized. She had lived in Boston for many years.”

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

le-caveau-christian-poules-installations-international-garden-festival-quebec_dezeen_ban
Le Caveau by Christian Poules is a four-sided room with walls made of stones contained within steel frames / Dezeen

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

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

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

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

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

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