How Can Louisiana Build Back Smarter?

Louisiana flooding / Los Angeles Times
Louisiana flooding / Los Angeles Times

The flooding that hit Louisiana last week affected hundreds of thousands of people over 1,000 square miles. The intense storm claimed 13 lives, and some 30,000 needed to be rescued. Over 60,000 homes have been destroyed, and 100,000 have registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance so far. According to the agency, the Louisiana flooding was a 500-year flood event, meaning there was just a 0.2 percent chance of this happening this year. However, this is the 8th 500-year flood event since May, 2015, which beg the questions: With climate change, are flood risk estimates now completely unreliable? And if super-storms are the new normal, what can communities do to build back smarter and make themselves more resilient to the next unexpected, disruptive event?

Wes Michaels, ASLA, a partner with Spackman, Mossop and Michaels, a Louisiana-based landscape architecture firm, said: “More rain fell in 4 days in Louisiana than the last 4 years in Los Angeles. A lot of places considered low-risk areas for flooding got a substantial amount of water, so it’s not just about people living in low-lying, flood-prone areas. These super-floods are unpredictable; they flood areas many people consider high and dry.”

Flooded homes / Yahoo.com
Flooded homes / Yahoo.com

Super-storms, while unpredictable, are becoming more common with global warming. As David Titley, a meteorology professor and the director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University, told Fast Company: “Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air, and we’re warming up both the air temperature and we’re warming up the oceans. Welcome to the future.”

The Washington Post editorial board in part blames FEMA’s out-of-date flood maps, “which determine who needs to buy government-sponsored flood insurance,” for the extensive damage. These maps “did not assess large portions of the area hit last week to be at high risk.” In reality, this means many of those hit by the storm will “not be able to call on an insurance policy.” The government only “presses people who live in so-called 100-year flood zones, areas that annually face a 1 percent chance of being flooded, to purchase government-backed flood insurance.”

According to Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, only 12 percent of homes in Baton Rouge and only 14 percent in Lafayette had flood insurance. As Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, FASLA, President and CEO, Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge, noted in an appeal posted to ASLA’s LAND, “though the floods affected people of all incomes, early indications show that a majority of victims are working-class or low-income individuals and families.” Many of those hit by the flooding couldn’t afford flood insurance, which is expensive, or didn’t expect they needed it. If a homeowner is insured, FEMA will pay out up to $250,000 in funds to rebuild. Thomas estimates the estimated value of the affected homes is around $5.7 billion.

Area hit by flooding / The New York Times
Area hit by flooding / The New York Times

FEMA only updates its maps each decade or so. But climate change and sprawl, which creates more impervious surfaces prone to flooding, are more rapidly changing the map of flood risk, particularly for coastal areas. Insurance premiums need to be tied to up-to-date flood risk, with higher premiums for higher risk zones.

According to Wired, communities now need “predictive flood maps: projections of flood risk based on modeling. Right now, pretty much all flood insurance comes from FEMA, which, again, updates its maps infrequently and also allows residents to comment and push back on the boundaries, effectively letting them determine their own flood risk. Insurance companies, which might have the capital to invest in models that incorporate climate change, have largely stayed out of the business since the 1920s—partly because it’s too risky, partly because government-subsidized rates are too low for private companies to compete with.”

But some firms, like Risk Management Solutions, are now developing their own flood risk modelling tools, because real-time modelling “could lead to better estimates of risk in certain places, which would allow companies to price policies accordingly and residents to really understand how risky their locations are. And as FEMA enacts some much-needed reforms (like phasing out government subsidies, for one), it may become easier for insurance companies to offer up flood policies, too.” Expanding the areas of people who are encouraged to buy into flood insurance could also help. Wired writes “if the insurance pool included people from 500-year floodplains, the risk would spread out more thinly,” reducing rates.

Beyond making the flood risk insurance system more responsive to a rapidly-changing climate, communities at higher risk of floods also need to rethink the status quo. Thomas believes that “smart, community-driven planning will play a lead role in rebuilding communities designed to thrive against a changing environmental context.”

And Michaels called for that planning effort to include a deeper analysis of the implications of car-based patterns of development. “As landscape architects, we need to be more involved in the design of infrastructure. Some of the unpredictability in flooding patterns comes from the storm itself, but some of it comes from how we design our interstates, roads, dams, bridges, canals and their related drainage systems. We need to think about how infrastructure fits into the larger landscape systems. Roads in particular, being long, linear systems, can drastically change how high intensity flood waters move across the landscape. There is an image in the news of a highway median wall backing up water on one side of the interstate near Walker, Louisiana. This wall may or may not have not caused flooding in other adjacent areas, but it certainly altered the flow of the water. These large infrastructural systems are pushing water around in ways that make the flooding less predictable, which makes planning for disasters more difficult. Our infrastructure needs to be designed to be porous to the flow of water (and species) across the landscape, and adaptable to the landscape at a much larger scale.”

Flooding along highway in Louisiana / Atmosphere Aerial
Flooded highway in Louisiana / Atmosphere Aerial
Flood damage in Denham Springs / Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press
Flood damage in Denham Springs / Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press

He added that landscapes in high flood risk areas also need to be made more resilient: “Landscape architects should be leading the call to design our landscapes to be resilient to flood and disaster. The amount of energy, resources, and effort that will go into ‘re-landscaping’ Baton Rouge is staggering. Not to mention the carbon footprint of all the dying vegetation that must be cleaned up. We can no longer afford to see these disasters as outlying events, and go back to business as usual after the flood waters recede. We need to design landscapes that can be cleaned up with minimal effort after flooding and will adapt to changing soil and climactic conditions over the coming decades. We need to plant resilient perennials that can be chopped to the ground and come back to life. We need to plant trees that can resist flooding, and use soil technologies that allow trees to be healthy in the first place so they can survive stress.”

Michaels concluded: “I don’t think we can design systems that will prevent flooding in a 1,000 year storm. But we can think about the larger implications of our systems and how they will function in super storms at the landscape scale. And we can be smarter about how we design our landscapes and cities, so we can recover from these events more quickly and with less use of limited resources.”

To help with flood relief, donate to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Science Lab Protected by Ingenious Wave Landscape

MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta
MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta

In Lund, a city in southern Sweden, the MAX IV Laboratory houses a synchrotron, a giant particle accelerator. Unfortunately, scientists there found the facility was buffeted by ground vibrations from a nearby highway. They discovered even the smallest vibrations could throw off their precise studies. Instead of finding a new site, the lab decided to use smart landscape design to create a solution. Working with Fojab Architects, landscape architects with Danish multidisciplinary design firm Snohetta created a 19-hectare park that absorbs vibrations while creating public space, a constructed meadow land, that also captures stormwater.

On their web site, Snohetta writes that ground vibrations are “commonly created by wavelengths between 10 to 40 meters in height and follow the surface of the ground.” If a landscape is flat, their models showed, vibrations could reach the laboratory. But experiments with different types of wave topography found that certain forms could actually absorb the vibrations.

Snohetta used the software program Grasshopper to model the effects of vibrations, defined at 10 to 40 meters at an amplitude of 4.5 meters, on their site.  The primary lab building had to be a circle. But they decided to twist and raise it, creating a “dynamic shape based on the Möbius strip,” which is a surface with one side and one boundary. And then they went further, creating a sort of Möbius volume. Landscape wave forms radiate out in a pattern that breaks up incoming vibrations. According to Snohetta, “the more chaotic combinations of waves, the better.”

Model / Snohetta
Model / Snohetta

To build this intricate landscape, Snohetta uploaded the 3D model directly into to the GPS systems guiding the bulldozers who carved the shapes. For the firm, it was like “having a giant 3D printer producing the project on a 1:1 scale.”

MAX IV laboratory  / © Mikal Schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser

On top of blocking the vibrations, the designers also brought a sustainable design approach — soil was cut on site and then filled in elsewhere to create the waves. They argue this will help ensure the site can return to agricultural use if the synchrotron is no longer used.

The waves also help channel stormwater into ponds designed to accommodate both 1-year and 100-year rain events.

MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © Mikal Schlosser

And throughout the park, there are native meadow grasses, planted from seeds gathered at a nearby nature reserve. The lab will bring in sheep to help manage the grasses.

MAX IV laboratory / © mikal schlosser
MAX IV laboratory / © mikal schlosser

Even though the location looks fairly suburban, there is also ample bike parking for lab employees and visitors.

MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta
MAX IV laboratory / Snohetta

See larger images at DesignBoom.

Parks Can Also Be Green Infrastructure

Historic 4th Ward Park / Beltlandia.com
Historic 4th Ward Park / Beltlandia.com


City Parks, Clean Water: Making Great Places Using Green Infrastructure
, a new report from The Trust for Public Land (TPL), makes a strong case for leveraging public parks to manage stormwater. The report offers several useful case studies that explain the challenges and opportunities involved in designing parks to act as systems for storing or absorbing excess stormwater. 

The problem of stormwater, as many readers know, originates with the vast amount of asphalt and concrete used in urban areas. Where once stormwater would have filtrated into the ground, asphalt and concrete shed it toward sewer systems. That water, toting pollutants and grime from streets, gets conveyed to rivers, lakes, and other water sources that people use. It is never cleansed by soils and plants, never replenishes groundwater, and often overburdens sewer systems and local waterways, causing flooding.

A potential solution to this problem, according to report, is to use parks to do the work of traditional grates, pipes, and sewage and stormwater treatment facilities. Parks are ideal for providing this service because they already exist in most cities and can be designed from the beginning, or even retrofitted, to serve both recreational and ecological functions.

The report offers five case studies of cities that deployed parks as green infrastructure and were rewarded with working landscapes that beautify their neighborhoods and allow for recreation:

The award-winning Historic Fourth Ward Park, which is part of Atlanta’s Beltline, sits in a lowland, industrial area that was heavily prone to flooding. One of its major features, a 5-acre storage pond, serves the function of what was intended to be a $40 million underground tunnel, according to HDR Inc., the landscape architecture and engineering firm that designed the park. The pond can handle a 500-year flood.

Kevin Burke, ASLA, senior landscape architect for the Atlanta Beltline, said the stormwater storage function of the park is working well: “We’re in the position where the city has allowed two additional developers to tie their runoff to the pond.”

The park does not infiltrate or clean stormwater, its only job is to store it. The report strikes on this point repeatedly, that stowing and slowing water outflow with green infrastructure goes a long way to preventing flooding and lifting the burden off treatment plants.

The report also highlights Railroad Park in Birmingham, Alabama, designed by Tom Leader Studio, as another economic success. The park has incentivized $185 million in development in the area and receives 500,000 visitors annually. Many of these visitors come expressly to see the birds and wildlife that flock to its water-managing wetlands, according to Railroad Park Foundation director Camille Spratling.

“When the lake was built, it was the first time we saw the Birmingham skyline reflected in the water,” Spratling wrote. “That was a real point of pride.”

Railroad Park / City Parks Blog
Railroad Park / City Parks Blog

The report acknowledges it’s important to think out all the options, asking decision makers to consider the following about gray vs. green infrastructure: “Do both approaches work equally as well? Is one less expensive? Can they be combined? Are residents willing to put up with years of tunneling under then neighborhoods? Conversely, does the city have enough unbuilt land to capture water on the surface?”

Other questions to answer before turning to green infrastructure: should the park also absorb stormwater? If so, what is the cost to amend the soils of existing parks so they can better infiltrate stormwater?

“The mere presence of a grassy park does not guarantee water infiltration,” the report states. Water runoff rates of urban soil, which is often heavily compacted, can approximate that of asphalt. Factors such as budget, precipitation patterns, native soil porosity, and depth to water table must be considered when amending the soil of parks, the report suggests. Maintenance of parks and their water management features can add to the cost of green infrastructure.

But, according to Burke, the investment was well worth it: Historic Fourth Ward Park has spurred hundreds of millions of dollars in development in the neighborhood.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16 – 30)

stavros-niarchos-foundation-cultural-center-snfcc-renzo-piano-athens-greece-national-opera-library-kallithea-architecture-landscaping-park-connections-city-sea_dezeen_1568_31
Stavros Niarchos Cultural Centre/Dezeen

Frank Gehry’s Controversial L.A. River Plan Gets Cautious, Low-Key RolloutThe Los Angeles Times, 6/18/16
“The design team working with architect Frank Gehry on a controversial new master plan for the Los Angeles River has begun to introduce its work to the public — but in a noticeably cautious and low-key way.”

It’s Playtime on the Bayou TrailThe Houston Chronicle, 6/24/16
“In a serene spot on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou Park – next door to the under-renovation Jamail Skatepark at the Sabine Street Bridge – the 1.5-acre play park is designed to bring natural and social ecologies together for young children.”

Landscape Architect James Corner Hopes His Public Square Design Promotes Democracy, Civic HarmonyCleveland Plain Dealer, 6/24/16
“‘Cities that double down and invest in well-designed public spaces – especially public spaces done right and to a high standard of care – are investing in their own success,’ Corner told the crowd Thursday. ‘Design matters and makes a huge difference.'”

Urban Parks: From Dumping Grounds to Centers of Energy The Huffington Post, 6/27/16
“A major initiative by New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver cogently explored at the recent and fascinating Parks Without Borders Summit is to make parks more porous and accessible and, by extension, to foster park equity, the idea that all parks are well maintained.”

Renzo Piano Completes Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center on a Huge Artificial HillDezeen, 6/28/16
“Renzo Piano has finished a major new park, library and theatre complex in Athens, following one of the largest donations for a cultural building project in history.”

A Bike Path for the Entire East Coast CityLab, 6/28/16
“The East Coast Greenway Alliance has been working since 1991 to connect the whole geography of the Atlantic seaboard with protected bike paths. So far, 850 miles of trail have been designated as Greenway. The project is about 31 percent complete.”

The New Landscape Declaration: Visions for the Next 50 Years

India's water crisis / National Geographic
India’s water crisis / National Geographic

Over the next 50 years, landscape architects must coordinate their actions globally to fight climate change, help communities adapt to a changing world, bring artful and sustainable parks and open spaces to every community rich or poor, preserve cultural landscape heritage, and sustain all forms of life on Earth. These were the central messages that came out the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future in Philadelphia, which was attended by over 700 landscape architects.

The speakers used declarations and short idea-packed talks, and attendees used cards, polls, and an interactive question and commenting app to provide input into a new declaration — a vision to guide the efforts of landscape architects to 2066.

As the 50th anniversary of the original declaration in 1966, many landscape architects looked back to see what has been achieved over the past 50 years. At the same time, through a series of bold statements, they created an ambitious global vision moving forward. As Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, president of LAF, believes: “We are now entering the age of landscape architecture.”

While not a comprehensive review of all the declarations, here are some highlights of the visions of what landscape architects must work to achieve over the next 50 years:

Landscape architects must address the “serious issues of air, water, food, and waste” in developing countries

Alpa Nawre, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture, Kansas State University, called for landscape architects to focus their efforts on the developing world, where the bulk of the current population and most of the future population growth will occur. Today, of the 7.2 billion people on Earth, some 6 billion live in developing countries. There, some 100 million lack access to clean water. The global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion in coming decades, with 400 million added mostly to the cities of the global south. “To accommodate these billions, we must design better landscape systems for resource management.”

Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, CEO of the SWA Group, echoed that sentiment, arguing that “in the future, there will be much more stringent regulations on natural resources” as they become rarer and more valuable. Landscape architects will play a larger role in valuing and managing those resources.

Christophe Girot, chair of landscape architecture, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, similarly saw the need for “new topical landscapes” for the 9.6 billion who will inhabit the Earth. We must “react, think creatively, and find solutions.”

Landscape architects must improve upon urbanization-as-usual

Instead of pursuing idealized visions of parks that may result in “tidy little ornaments of green that make liberals feel good,” Chris Marcinkowski, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and partner at PORT Urbanism, said landscape architects must “work with the underlying systems of urbanization and adapt them,” softening them in an era when 1 billion people live in cities.

James Corner, ASLA, founder of James Corner Field Operations, pushed for accelerating urbanization in order to protect surrounding nature. “If you love nature, live in the city.” He called for landscape architects to “embed beauty and pleasure in cities” in the forms of parks and gardens, because we need to make it “so that people should want to live in cities.” Landscape architects must envision a denser urban world as well, and “shape the form of the future city.” His vision of the future city is a “garden city” that takes advantage of the “landscape imagination.” And Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and Henri Bava, founding partner, Agence TER, similarly made the case for a new “landscape-led urbanism” rooted in ecological processes.

David Gouverneur, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, called for applying novel approaches to the informal communities in which he works in Venezuela, where the conventional planning and design process fails. He proposed retrofitting these places through his “informal armature approach,” which can create both pathways and communal nodes but also areas of flexible growth that allows “locals to invade and occupy.” He argued that new forms of planning and design can better meet the needs of the hundreds of millions living in informal communities in the world.

Informal armature / David Gouverneur
Informal armature / David Gouverneur

And Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, explained how her community-centric approach “creates a scaffolding for meaningful participation that is an active generator of social life.” For her, it’s all about “linking the social to the ecological and scaling that up for communities.”

Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, also called for all landscape architects to get more active at the urban and regional scales. “That’s where society needs us the most.”

Landscape architects must create a future for wild nature

“The landscape has been broken into fragments. We need a more inclusive approach, a new philosophical relationship between humanity and nature,” said Feng Han, director, department of landscape studies, Tongji University in Shanghai. That new approach must be rooted in “just landscape planning and design.”

Randolph Hester Jr., FASLA, director, Center for Ecological Democracy, and professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, made a similar and compelling argument, saying that “justice and beauty must be found together in the landscape.” The landscape itself is a “community, with the ecological and cultural being indivisible.”

A central part of achieving that just landscape planning and design approach is to better respect the other 2.5 million known species on the planet, argued Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University. “We must think of the quality of being for them, too.” To protect their homes, landscape architects must lead the charge in “re-establishing the role of the wild.” E.O. Wilson, in his most recent book, Half Earth, calls for preserving half of the planet for the other species. “That kind of goal is a blunt instrument. Now we need to design what that looks like. We need a planetary strategy that connects remnant fragments. We can create a global mosaic that will be the foundation of a next wave of conservation.”

Projective Ecologies / Harvard University Press
Projective Ecologies / ACTAR, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

A key part of those mosaics will be designed sustainable landscapes, said Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, who argued that “sustainability needs to be addressed in every landscape” moving forward. “We must keep every scrap of nature” by certifying projects with systems like SITES.

And in case anyone forgot the essential message: Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, argued that “everything comes from nature and is inspired by nature.”

Landscape architects must dramatically increase in number

Given landscape architects relatively small numbers — there are estimated to be less than 75,000 worldwide — Martha Fajardo, International ASLA, CEO, Grupo Verde, said each must “become ambassadors for the landscape,” speaking loudly wherever they go.

But Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Mexico’s leading landscape architect, said that may not be enough and more numbers are needed. For example, while there are more than 150,000 architects in Mexico, there are only 1,000 landscape architects.

He said: “There are not enough landscape architects in the developing world. And we need a global perspective. The U.S. and Euro-centric perspective must change. More landscape architects from the developing world studying in the U.S. and Europe need to return to their countries and help.”

Landscape architects must diversify themselves fast

“Minorities are woefully underrepresented” in the field of landscape architecture, argued Gina Ford, ASLA, a partner at Sasaki. “The black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. are growing.” How can we address this? Ford called for the highest levels of academic and firm leadership to bring in and hire minorities. “It’s not about getting warm, fuzzy feelings; it’s about innovation. Diversity begets innovation. Diverse staff resonate with diverse clients. We must diversify to create a shared vision for the future.”

Landscape architects must get even more political

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, founder of Heritage Landscapes, who is active in UNESCO, ICOMOS, and other international organizations, said the first step is for landscape architects to “show up” and engage in political debates. Then, they must “collaborate to be relevant.” Working within these complex international fora, O’Donnell herself pushes for “connecting biological diversity with cultural diversity” and encouraging these organizations to value cultural landscapes. To be more relevant, she said, landscape architects should further align their efforts with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, may be the epitome of the political landscape architect. His work spans planning and design across mainland China, but he spends a good amount of his time and energy on persuading thousands of local mayors and senior governmental leaders alike on the value of “planning for ecological security.” He called for landscape architects to “think big — at the local, regional, and national scales” — and to influence decision-makers.

China ecological security plan / Turenscape
China ecological security plan / Turenscape

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners, who is an active advocate and commentator in the UK, where she now lives, threw down the gauntlet, calling for landscape architects to form a political wing that will urge policymakers to fund bold research into geo-engineering techniques that can stave off the planetary emergency caused by climate change. At the same time, “we need to start a political agenda for a Manhattan project to reduce carbon emissions.” Schwartz sees ASLA pushing for climate rescue over the next 50 years, helping us to “buy the time for a second chance to live in balance with the Earth.” For her and others, climate action is the platform for landscape architecture for the next five decades.

And Kelly Shannon, chair of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, International ASLA, made the case for “changing the unsustainable status quo and inspiring new social movements.” Landscape architects must become “essential game changers.”

Landscape architects must better leverage green infrastructure to achieve broader goals 

Using their knowledge of systems, nature, and people, landscape architects must find new opportunities to regenerate poor communities that have been left out. Tim Duggan, ASLA, Phronesis, called for using green infrastructure as a wedge for creating opportunities. “In consent decree communities, green infrastructure can be leveraged to create wider urban regenerative processes.” Green infrastructure, as Duggan has shown, can become the catalyst for community development.

But to make this happen in New Orleans and Kansas City, he had to “lobby change at the decision-maker level and string together innovative financing mechanisms.” In other words, he had to wade into the broader economic and governmental systems to make change happen.

Landscape architects must keep design central to the human experience 

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), said a “holistic view” was needed, and that landscape architects can’t foresake the important role of art and design in the experience of landscape architecture by focusing exclusively on ecological values. “We need to put the value of landscape architect on the level of the artist.” Harriet Pattison, FASLA, helped him make the point in this segment of her TCLF oral history project:

Blaine Merker, ASLA, Gehl Studio, argued for “making humanism physical and celebrating the human condition” through well-designed space for people. “Plazas and parks increase social connection. This leads to deep sustainability and happiness that reinforce each other.”

Landscape architects must generate new fields of research and design to stay relevant

A fascinating idea: what is on the margins today may be at the center tomorrow. Dirk Sijmons, co-founder, H+N+S Landscape Architects, argued for landscape architects to get more deeply involved in what may be a marginal area for them now: the transition to clean energy. He showed his work animating the energy flows of off-shore wind farms in the North Sea. “We must develop new centers for the discipline.”

Landscape architects educators must “revolutionize the landscape architecture education system” and become more pragmatic

Kongjian Yu also called for the educational system to teach the aesthetic value of ecology and sustainability. “We need deep forms rooted in ecology, not shallow forms. Nature is the bedrock.” Yu calls landscape architecture an “art of survival” that will become increasingly relevant as the world’s problems only multiply. “We need to teach how landscapes can fight flooding, fire, drought, and produce food. We need to generate pragmatic knowledge and basic survival skills to open up new horizons.”

Marc Treib, professor of architecture emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, added that “the sustainable is not antithetical to the beautiful. We can elevate the pragmatic to the level of poetry.”

While these bold ideas do push the landscape architecture agenda forward, what was missing from the LAF event was some critical discussions on how to better collaborate with scientists, ecologists, developers, architects, urban planners, and engineers on forging a common vision that can increase their collective impact in the halls of power; the coming explosion of aging populations; the health benefits of nature — and how the desire for better health could become a central driver of demand for landscape architecture; and sustainable transportation and the future of mobility. Hopefully, we’ll see more on these as LAF continues to hone its vision.

The New Landscape Declaration: Looking Back Over the Past 50 Years

Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair
Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair

At the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, which met in Philadelphia last week, more than 700 landscape architects offered personal declarations and contributed their ideas, all in an effort to shape the 50-year follow-up to LAF’s original declaration of concern, published in 1966 amid massive political and social change and an era of environmental degradation in the United States.

Although the focus of the summit was on forging a new declaration and vision for the profession that can guide the efforts of landscape architects over the next five decades, there was also a call to “critically reflect on what landscape architecture has achieved over the last 50 years.”

Amid all the declarations and discussion, a few major themes came out of the reflections on what has shaped landscape architecture since 1966:

The American environmental crisis went global
From the original declaration: “A sense of crisis has brought us together.”

In his introductory remarks, LAF President Kona Gray, ASLA, was quick to note that in the 1966 declaration, “it was all about the American landscape.” The original declaration cites concerns that “Lake Erie is becoming septic, New York City is short of water, the Delaware River is infused with salt, the Potomac River with sewage and silt.” Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, noted that this 1966 description of the American environment was in sharp contrast to what Ian McHarg, influential landscape architect and one of the co-writers of the original declaration, simultaneously referred to as “oriental harmony” of the hydraulic civilizations of Asia. Yet 50 years later, Yu, along with Alpa Nawre, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Kansas State University, were struck by similarities between 1950’s America and modern China and India today, where development has also led to environmental problems at an unprecedented scale.

In addition to the local crises of pollution, environmental degradation, and habitat loss that has run rampant in the developing world in the past few decades, new overarching global crises have emerged in the form of human-induced climate change and rapid population growth.

Landscape architects got political
From the original declaration: “We pledge our services. We seek help from those who share our concern.”

While the 1966 declaration does not directly address politics, according to keynote speaker Beth Meyer, FASLA, professor at the University of Virginia, Ian McHarg, author of the seminal book Design with Nature, and the other co-writers of the declaration were responding to not only the environmental crisis, but also the political opportunity introduced through the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

McHarg was influential in the development of first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s thinking on the value of beauty and nature in cities as well as the launch of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty in May, 1965. He later referred to first lady and environmental advocate Lady Bird Johnson “as his fan.”

Meyer argued then that his central role in creating the 1966 declaration may have been as much about environmental stewardship as a call for increased political influence by landscape architects. Just four years later McHarg would join thousands in Philadelphia for the first ever Earth Day event.

1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia
1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia

This political context set the stage for protest and advocacy by many other leading landscape architects over the past five decades. Just one example of this at the LAF summit is Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners. In her declaration, Schwartz said that to respond to climate change, landscape architects must rekindle their political agency by being “online warriors” and rebuild the political wing of the profession that can “put forth a forceful agenda.” The sentiment was echoed by Kelly Shannon, chair of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, International ASLA, who suggested that landscape architects must continue to “orient social movements and lead policy.”

People and parks returned to the city
From the original declaration: “Most urban Americans are being separated from visual and physical contact with nature in any form.”

At a time of rampant urban blight, the 1966 declaration made little reference to designing in cities. Fast forward 50 years and Blaine Merker, ASLA, director at Gehl Architects; James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations; Henry Bava, partner at Agence Ter; Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design; and Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, among others, focused their declarations around celebrating and expanding landscape’s urban reemergence.

Whether it took the form or urban ecological planning, tactical urbanism, green infrastructure, or new parks and plazas, landscape architects have played a critical role in creating humane green public spaces for a new and increasingly urban generation. This effort has helped concentrate development, improve urban sustainability, and preserve the nature surrounding cities. As Corner championed: “if you love nature, live in a city.”

For others, landscape architecture’s return to the city allowed the discipline to grow beyond its 1966 definition as “applied natural sciences.” Christopher Marcincoski, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and partner at PORT Urbanism, argued that landscape architecture has effectively “softened the effect of urbanization,” at least in much of the developed world, but now must better anticipate the political, economic, social, and cultural forces behind urbanization in the areas left behind and the developing world.

For Tim Duggan, ASLA, these places are rich with opportunities. His declaration showed how his work not only over-layed environmental benefits, but also included the “overlaying of opportunities to find a catalytic but attainable scale” for financing and implementing regenerative infrastructure in under-served communities in Kansas City and New Orleans.

 Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation
Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation

Landscape architects called for justice
From the original declaration: “Man is not free of nature’s demands.”

Perhaps one of the most resounding critiques of the 1966 declaration was its now dated emphasis on the conflict between man and nature. LAF president Kona Grey began by contrasting the six white male signees of the 1966 declaration with the 715 diverse attendees of the 2016 LAF summit. Throughout the summit, many speakers made the connection between the increased diversity of our profession and the increasingly diverse communities served by it.

There was Randy Hester, FASLA, a professor at University of California at Berkeley, who has long called for an ecological democracy. David Gouverneur, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who showed his methods for working with informal settlements in the global south. And the work of Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, demonstrated that collaborative design can build both social and physical resilience simultaneously. These and numerous other efforts demonstrated a growing push toward environmental justice, combining landscape architects call to serve both the people and the places that sustain them.

In addition to addressing diversity in her talk entitled “Landscape Humanism,” Gina Ford, a principal at Sasaki, ASLA,  also joined others in realizing that humans are no longer “nature’s antagonist,” but rather are inseparable from nature.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, quoted the great 20th century thinker Buckminster Fuller, reminding attendees that “the opposite of natural is impossible.” Yet our inclusion in nature during what is being called the sixth great extinction, led Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, to ask, “who in the Anthropocene will care for the wild things?”

Learning from the shortcomings of the 1966 declaration, the 2016 declaration must respond to a greater diversity of people, living creatures, and agendas in order for landscape architects to continue to “make our vital contribution.”

Landscape architecture expanded in scale and scope
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect is uniquely rooted in the natural sciences.”

Delivering his declaration via a recorded video from Italy, Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, asserted that landscape architecture has grown to a “huge diversity of practices.” Steinitz charted how landscape architecture began as a multi-scalar practice, but has since ebbed and flowed between small, medium, and regional scales as predicted by the demands of each subsequent decade.

While Steinitz, Kelly Shannon, and Dirk Sijmons, co-founder,  H+N+S Landscape Architects, suggested a need to now revisit the regional scale so favored by McHarg and his colleagues, others assessed landscapes’ successes in prototyping smaller projects capable of global replication. The notion of landscape architecture as an expanded field was seen as both a pro and a con as some worried about being spread too thin, and others embraced the notion of landscape architect as infiltrator and instigator of public agencies and allied professions.

Ecological research was translated into design
From the original declaration: “The demand for better resource planning and design is expanding.”

While the global threat of climate change presents new, less visible challenges, many at the LAF Summit recognized that the 1966 Declaration’s call to action “to improve the American environment” had in many ways been answered. Having written, advocated for, and pioneered ecological landscape design projects, the impact of landscape architects has been transformational, many argued. As Mario Schjetnan, managing director of Grupo de Diseño Urbano, FASLA, noted, “U.S. cities have upgraded air quality, reduced soil and water pollution, and improved open space.”

In his declaration, Kongjian Yu, founder or Turenscape, FASLA, spoke of “50 years of experiments with fire, water, floods, and the landscape as living machine.” Noting new sustainability standards and guidelines such as LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), “the change is amazing,” Yu exclaimed. He joined others in calling for the need to now “replicate and open new scales” through global practice.

ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape
ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape

Historic landscapes became more valuable 
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect practices an historic art.”

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, reminded LAF Summit attendees that 1966 was also the year that the Historic Preservation Act passed, and since 1998, Birnbaum, who is the president, CEO, and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, has made enormous gains in documenting and preserving designed landscapes. For Birnbaum, placing cultural value on our existing landscape heritage is key to bolstering the contemporary contribution of landscape architects.

Complementing this perspective was Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, founder of Heritage Landscapes, who for over 30 years has advocated for “culture-based sustainable development.” Referring to her projects with organizations such as UNESCO and their Historic Urban Landscape Initiative, O’Donnell’s work is exemplary of how the sustaining powers of culture and heritage create “a larger community (for landscape) to participate with.”

Landscape architects emerged as lead collaborators
From the original declaration: “There is no ‘single solution’ but groups of solutions carefully related one to another. There is no one-shot cure, nor single-purpose panacea, but the need for collaborative solutions.”

The 1966 declaration was ahead of its time in its vision of landscape architecture as a collaborative discipline. Many modern declarations reinforced that landscape architects have not only have benefited from these broad collaborations, but also have been increasingly leading teams on the great urban and infrastructural projects of our time.

While James Corner noted the role of his firm in leading large multidisciplinary projects, Kate Orff used her declaration to suggest landscape architecture firms are now the “collaborative glue… convening, organizing, and enabling others” through projects that serve as a “scaffolding for participation.” As LAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, observed, increasingly you “can’t achieve sustainability without considering landscape.”

Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE
Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE

Landscape architects learned how to simplify and communicate complexity
From the original declaration: “Once they understand landscape capabilities—the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of environment, the determinants of change—they can then interpret the landscape correctly.”

Following the original declaration by only three years, Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature paved the way for the subsequent decades of research, scholarship, and communication by landscape architects to the broader public about the complexities of our ever changing built and natural environment.

From Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Granite Garden to Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World, landscape architect’s played a critical role in deciphering environmental complexity. In his declaration, Dirk Sijmons, former chair of landscape architecture at TU Delft, showcased recent visualizations from the 2016 International Architectural Biennale, animating scenarios for offshore wind energy development in the Arctic.

2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak
2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak

For Sijmons, “research and design at a large landscape scale” is less about project implementation, and more about building the cultural influence and political will needed to take on the challenges of the Anthropocene – the age of man.

Landscape architects diversified, to some extent

In her opening, Barbara Deutsch noted that the field of landscape architecture still has a major diversity problem, but it’s far more diverse than it was in 1966, when the profession was mostly white and male. Now, membership in ASLA is 36 percent female and now only 68 percent of landscape architecture graduates are Caucasian. And landscape architecture is a global practice, with tens of thousands of diverse practitioners across the world. Still, there is much more work to be done in the future to attract African Americans and Latinos to the field in the U.S.

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

Philadelphia Passes Historic “Soda Tax” to Fund Revamp of Parks

eastwick
Eastwick Playground Park / Nicole Westerman

The Philadelphia city council approved a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages. The “soda-tax”, as it is being called, will raise funds for parks and recreation center upgrades, pre-Kindergarten programs, community schools, and the city’s general fund, according to Mayor Jim Kenney.

The city council claims that soda-tax revenue will account for $91 million per year and $386 million over the next five years. About 15 percent of that revenue, or $58 million, is allotted for what the city is calling it’s Rebuild program, which includes parks and recreation center upgrades. Philadelphia’s parks and recreation facilities are notoriously underfunded.

One of the major goals of the Rebuild program is to address equity in the city, according to first deputy managing director Brian Abernathy.

“Everyone, no matter where they live, deserves quality recreation centers, open space and libraries.”

Abernathy added that the Rebuild initiative will conform with Philadelphia’s larger green infrastructure agenda by supporting “broader storm water management, energy efficiency, and sustainability goals.”

swingset-mcveigh
Swing set in McVeigh Park / Nicole Westerman

The bill was not passed without controversy, with opponents claiming it will be levied disproportionately on the poor. Last-minute negotiations designating a portion of the revenue towards shoring up gaps in the city’s budget further stoked opposition to the bill. Its approval has made Philadelphia only the second U.S. city to pass such a tax.

Mayor Kenney had been building political momentum for such an investment in public infrastructure prior to his election last November and financed research to find out what the opportunities are.

Chris Mendel, a landscape architect with Philadelphia-based Andropogon Associates, whose team helped lead a cost-estimate analysis of park upgrades, said Mayor Kenney’s staff approached his firm last October to analyze approximately 470 outdoor open spaces owned and operated by Philadelphia parks and recreation. Aided by data from planning and urban design office Interface Studio, Mendel and his team of Lauren Mandel, ASLA, and Patty West, Associate ASLA, had two months to complete the assessment.

“I came up with a survey method and we quickly chose some representative target sites to go see. 82 sites were physically visited. We were done with the assessments by mid-November.” Mendel said that in the waning days of the assessment, two parks staff members joined his team, helping to complete the assessment in time.

“As we finished up, everybody was hungry for numbers: how much this is really going to cost,” Mendel said. He and his team created two cost estimates for each site: One, a basic package that would make each park clean, safe, and ready to use; the second, a deluxe upgrade that would add sustainability and dynamism to the sites. “That’s where we added porous asphalt, nature play and water features.”

Mendel and his team then went over the estimates with seasoned parks staff, whose knowledge he said was invaluable to the process. “What we found was that the costs were not so bad.”

The portion of the soda tax revenue designated for Rebuild will be used to service debt on $300 million in bonds that the city is seeking, which will in turn be used with other private and public sources to help fund the project, according to Philadelphia Magazine.

Duany: The Promise of Suburbia Has Been Betrayed

The transect / PlaceMakers
The transect / PlaceMakers

“The promise of suburbia — to live in nature amid the easy flow of cars — has been betrayed. Sprawl is not sustainable; its growth chokes on itself,” argued architect and urban planner Andrés Duany at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit.

Duany calls for using New Urbanism, an approach he and others have promoted for the past few decades, in order to “preserve nature.” New Urbanist developments can preserve nature because they can “make cities places people love to live in,” so they stop moving to the suburbs, contributing to sprawl. New Urbanist communities, he argues, are also inherently healthy and just, because there people “walk, so they don’t get fat,” and “you don’t need a car to get around.” In contrast, car-based communities are “un-just,” because the old can’t drive cars and the poor can’t afford them. Some 50 million Americans don’t have cars.

New Urbanism can also result in a more balanced relationship with nature. “In Europe, they had to integrate with nature. In contrast, in America, our relationship with the wilderness has been adversarial.” But Duany argues that if we use his model of the transect, which shows how cities can become denser as they move from untrammeled nature on the peripheries to dense urban cores, “we can bring nature into the city. Wildlife habitat can be assigned everywhere. The transect is also for bringing nature in.”

Sprawl, Duany argued, is rooted in a dendritic, inefficient, car-based system that must be overthrown with a new grid-based, walkable system. Furthermore, it’s one system or the other: “sprawl and new urbanism are incompatible and can’t be intermixed.”

Unfortunately, the “enemy” — sprawl — is backed by a range of “powerful” forces. There are “whole professions, like traffic engineers, who are vested in this system.” The solution is to provide these “administrators” with a new set of guidelines they can manage. “They just want to administer something. Let’s just change the manual, and then we can change what they administer.”

He envisions New Urbanist communities in which there are multiple choices that coincide with human nature, and the stages of life. These communities have a dense core that can sustain nightlife, which is critical for young people, “whose job it is to date and mate.” Once they’ve mated, they find a starter home, perhaps just out of the core. As they grown older and wealthier, they move closer to the periphery, where they have a larger house immersed in nature. Then, when they retire, they move back into a smaller apartment in the urban core.

Furthermore, human nature is to form hierarchies, and New Urbanist communities simply enable that basic tendency. “We can break up communities into wealthy mansions, mid-range, and low-range housing.” But for Duany, the key is they all live near each other in walkable communities, which enables a local economy, e.g. the maid and nanny live walking distance from the mansions. Duany is also all for allowing people to chose whether they want to live in a homogeneous or diverse community.

Duany said New Urbanists have enabled these kinds of neighborhoods by participating in writing the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Hope VI standards, which enabled 270,000 units of affordable housing to be added in a subtle way to mixed-income communities. “We can integrate but keep the housing for the poor to 10-20 percent.”

He concluded that 30-60 percent of Americans want to live in New Urbanist developments where this kind of set-up is possible. “We just need to level the playing field to let the market operate.” In these communities, “life is better; people are more satisfied.”

F. Kaid Benfield, senior advisor to PlaceMakers, and author of the great book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, followed Duany, making many of the arguments outlined in his book. However, he further emphasized the need to better “integrate nature into the urban fabric,” perhaps going beyond what Duany and the New Urbanist’s transect offers. “We need nature inside cities, the kind that fits well.” For Benfield, that largely means mid-size (8 acres or less) and pocket parks, along with lots of trees, green complete streets, and all other forms of small-scale green infrastructure. As an example of a perfect-sized park, he pointed to Russell Square in London, “which is a great size — just small enough to reach but large enough to escape in.”

While landscape architects and designers may find some things to agree with here, what was left out of this discussion was the idea of cities as ecosystems. University of Virginia professor and author Tim Beatley, with his biophilic urbanism, shows that dense, walkable cities like Singapore and Wellington, New Zealand, can also be more biodiverse and create those rich connections to nature that sustain life for many species, even in cities.

Biophilic Cities Lead the Way to Urban Sustainability

“We need density but we also need connections to nature,” said University of Virginia professor Timothy Beatley, at an event at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to celebrate D.C.’s successful inclusion in the Biophilic Cities Network, a group of leading cities pushing for rich, nature-filled experiences in daily urban life.

Beatley launched the network only a few years ago, but it already seems to have taken off. Building on the impact of his important books, Green Urbanism, Biophilic Cities, and Blue Urbanism, the network is designed to improve knowledge-sharing among cities who seek to merge the built and natural environments. Leading environmental cities — such as Singapore; Portland; San Francisco; Wellington, New Zealand; and now, Washington, D.C. — have joined, and another 20-30 cities are now exploring signing on.

Beatley explained how biophilic cities forge deeper, more meaningful connections to nature, which in turn increases social connections and community resilience. He then highlighted some biophilic urban innovations:

Singapore (see video at top) is now putting “nature at the heart of its planning and design process.” Singapore’s official tagline used to be “garden city,” but now it’s “the city in a garden.” The idea, Beatley explained, is “not to visit a garden but to live in it; not to visit a park, but to live in it.” To realize this concept, Singapore has issued a landscape replacement policy that ensures any greenery removed through the process of developing a lot be replaced on the building eventually found there. In reality, though, developers, architects, and landscape architects have doubled or tripled the amount of original green footprint in buildings’ structures through the use of sky gardens. “There is now a competition among developers to see who can add more green.” The city has also built nearly 300 kilometers of park connectors to create deeper connections between parks and neighborhoods.

Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA and Tierra Design / Dezeen
Parkroyal on Pickering by WOHA / Dezeen

Melbourne, Australia, has pledged to double its tree canopy by 2040. “They are re-imagining the idea of the city in a forest. It’s a multi-scale investment in nature — from the rooftop to the bio-region and everywhere in between.” Individual trees are now being registered and made accessible via GIS maps. To further boost engagement, locals can also email love notes to a tree and the trees will write a note back.

The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy. Image by Anton Malishev / ArchitectureAU
The City of Melbourne’s Urban Forest Strategy. Image by Anton Malishev / ArchitectureAU

A number of cities are forging deeper connections to urban wildlife, too. In Bangalore, there’s the Slender Loris project that engages citizen scientists in noctural journeys through the city to meet these shy creatures. Austin, Texas has gone completely batty, in a good way. Underneath Congress Bridge, millions of bat fly out at dusk during the warmer months to feed. Above and below the bridge, people gather to watch the amazing exoduses and sometime-murmurations. “There are now bat-watching dinner cruises.”

In St. Louis, there’s Milkweeds for Monarchs, which has resulted in 250 new butterfly gardens. San Francisco will soon mandate the use of bird-friendly building facades. And in Wellington, city officials are investing in predator-proof fencing in many areas with the goal of “bringing birdsong back.”

“Biophilic experiences are multi-sensory. Animal sounds can re-animate our cities. People want more nature; they want to hear birdsong in their neigborhoods,” said Beatley.

Stella Tarnay, co-founder of Biophilic DC, wants D.C. to become even more nature-filled. Her group will monitor new city projects to ensure they actually integrate greenery and boost biodiversity. For example, in Adams Morgan, plans are underway to remake the Marie Reed Learning Center with a set of green roofs and gardens, but it will be important to guarantee none of those great landscape plans get cut at the last minute for budgetary reasons.

Also in the works: building more support for the city’s wildlife action plan through expanded environmental education programs. As Maribeth DeLorenzo, deputy director of D.C.’s urban sustainability administration, explained, “there are now 270 species of birds in the district, 70 species of fish, 32 species of mammals, and hundreds of species of invertebrates.” But greater awareness is needed of these species — along with the biodiversity benefits of a clean and ecologically-healthy Anacostia River and the district goal of achieving a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032.

Margie Ruddick Is Wild by Design

Wild by Design / Island Press
Wild by Design / Island Press

“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.

Concrete shard barriers at Queens Plaza / Margie Ruddick Landscape
Concrete shard barriers at Queens Plaza / Margie Ruddick Landscape

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.

Queens Plaza /
Queens Plaza / Marpillo Pollak Architects

New bike lanes are lined with vegetation, too, so that “riding through, you feel protected from the traffic, like you are in a park.”

Queens plaza /
Queens plaza / Marpillo Pollak Architects

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.

Queens plaza /
Queens plaza / Marpillero Pollak Architects

Patterned, hand-made pavers and curbs, which were designed with artist Michael Singer, are designed to let water out into those wetlands.

pavers
Queens plaza pavers / Steven Yavanian

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.”

Queens plaza /
Queens plaza /Marpillo Pollak Architects

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.”

Living Water Park /
Living Water Park / Jason Bregman

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.

Western Ghats resort /
Western Ghats resort / Writer Corporation

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.”

New York Aquarium / Margie Ruddick Landscape
New York Aquarium / WRT, Cloud 9

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.

New York Aquarium plan / Margie Ruddick Landscape
New York Aquarium plan / WRT, Cloud 9

Many more examples of her design principles can be found in Wild by Design.