Last November, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented ambitious designs for the 1-mile segment of the 182-mile-long C&O Canal that passes through Georgetown. The goal then seemed to be to throw a bunch of bold ideas out there to see what sticks. Six months later, at a public comment meeting in Georgetown sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and Georgetown Heritage, a non-profit group financing the planning and design process, Field Operations offered a pared-back plan more respectful of historic preservation concerns. Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, a principal at Field Operations, said the latest design concepts are “smarter, more incisive, and more responsive to the site.”
NPS said they can either take no action other than immediate repairs or maintenance to this highly-popular national park, or they can design and build the “alternative design” approach, which for the purposes of public evaluation is separated into two options.
NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations clearly listened to community concerns that the original proposals would be too radical a shift in the laid-back feel of the canal. Responding to over 350 comments from the public, power point slides in the presentation now highlighted the “historic significance” and “informal charm” of the linear park beloved to many D.C. residents and tourists.
An important discussion in this review focused on whether to expand the width of the narrow towpaths that limit access along parts of the canal. But instead of long, cantilevering pathways that were offered last November, Field Operations now proposes widening the paths slightly and only at key “pinch points,” a more strategic solution. Astheimer imagined new linear platforms as contemporary equivalents of the wooden decks that once lined the canal.
At mile-marker zero, the beginning of the 182-mile-long trail, Field Operations proposes intelligent fixes to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and make the marker more of a destination. One option includes fun “habitable nets,” where people can lounge over the water, a feature now seen in other urban waterfront parks.
The proposal for the area they call Rock Creek Confluence, where the canal meets the creek, is also sensible, opening up views to the creek and the sequence of locks through a viewing platform set in pollinator-friendly meadows. A new pedestrian bridge will make both sides of the canal more accessible.
The Mule Yard design options feature more trees and expanded visitor infrastructure. Heading west towards Wisconsin Avenue, a busy corridor lined with coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, they propose a few alternatives to improve accessibility. Where the canal flows under Wisconsin Avenue, there are a few configurations with stairs and an elevator; and on the south side of the canal, a new boardwalk.
Further west down the canal, at Potomac Street, one of the central commercial hubs of Georgetown, where crowds come hear a jazz trio at Dean & Deluca on the weekends, an overlook has been transformed either into a “sky deck” or terraced seating. The designers propose opening up views across the canal here by clearing old trees along the south side of the canal. Elevators and Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA)-accessible ramps would make the canal, which can only be reached via steep stairs, far easier to traverse. These proposals would likely increase activity here and help bring more people down to the canal and perhaps the Georgetown Waterfront Park a few blocks to the south.
Lastly, the aqueduct and stone yard segments, the points in the plan furthest out from downtown Georgetown, are proposed as new destinations. The Stone Yard area could be left alone, but Field Operations proposes adding a platform or outdoor seating nooks there.
At the old aqueduct, which is now an interesting, graffiti-covered ruin, Corner’s team proposes heavily redeveloping the space — either as zig-zagging overlook platform or as a structure covered in a trestle, with a kiosk. This is the remaining ambitious piece perhaps most reminiscent of the High Line in New York City, which Corner’s firm also designed.
Astheimer seemed to understand what many community members conveyed in the first public review: that the C&O Canal is a “respite in a time when we are all overstimulated.” The new design concepts largely help preserve that vision while improving access and safety. Perhaps the community will find the final designs can be even more surgical, so as to further limit impacts on this historical landscape.
Coming next this spring: NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations will finalize the plan, and then present design concepts before the Old Georgetown Board and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in the coming year.
Shaping the Postwar Landscape, edited by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), and Scott Craver is the fifth in a series of books that serve as an encyclopedia of landscape architects and allied professionals who made significant contributions to American landscape design. The book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in American landscape design’s roots.
While the editors set out to provide a reference guide, they’ve achieved a relatively compelling read. Professional disciplines are comprised of people, ideas, and projects. Through the fastidious profiling of American landscape pioneers, Birnbaum and Craver have encapsulated a specific period of landscape architecture in an easily consumable text.
Per the title, the book focuses on landscape architects who were most active post-WWII through the bicentennial. This was the era of Modernist design and the move to incorporate environmental intelligence into design and planning. This era saw the first freeway-capping parks, rooftop gardens, and waterfront revitalization projects. And saw landscapes architects take on a broader range of projects in new territories and at new scales, from urban pocket parcels to suburban developments to greater ecological regions.
It was also a time in which the profession of landscape architecture experienced impressive growth. ASLA members numbered 540 in 1949, a figure that leaped to over 4,000 by 1974, according to Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA. With that growth came added diversity and strength of ideas. More women, minorities, and people without professional backgrounds in landscape architecture took on roles in shaping the discipline during this period. The individuals chronicled in the book are those whose professional and academic work guided and informed landscape architecture during an especially exciting time.
Postwar Landscapes’ profiles are well-written and include useful personal and professional information as well as analysis. For instance, we are told not only what projects landscape architect Satoru Nishita worked on, but of the renown of his father’s bonsai and that his portfolio demonstrated a keen eye for design details. In this way the writing avoids dryness in spite of the book’s encyclopedic format. The format does have the benefit of allowing one to telescope in and out of the book. But as one reads through, names of people, projects, institutions and movements recur to the point that one begins to recognize the larger constellation they form.
While Postwar Landscape’s format might suggest it’s suitable only for researchers, its reach should be much greater. Many landscape architects are well-versed on projects but fuzzy on the associated names and chronology. This book is an excellent tool for filling those gaps.
If you know of Lafayette Park in Detroit but not Alfred Caldwell, or admire Cornelia Oberlander’s work but want to understand her broader impact on the profession, Postwar Landscapes can be a rewarding read.
As founder and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, few individuals have done more to increase awareness of American landscape design than Birnbaum. His crusade has produced the sort of work that edifies and anchors a discipline, work that should not be taken for granted.
Mount Umunhum, the third largest peak in the Bay Area, has long been sacred to the Amah Mutsun tribe. Its peak is central to their origin story. And for many years, the tribe would form a ceremonial circle there and stomp their feet as hard as they could so that creator would hear.
In the 1950s, the US Air Force purchased the top of the mountain, terraced it, and built an early warning radar station that included some 80 structures, such as a swimming pool and bowling alley. From the late 1950s up unti 1980, when the base closed, the station was off-limits to the tribe and all other visitors. Then in 1986, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) purchased the land with the goal of restoring the landscape as a spiritual home for the Amah Mutsun.
After spending millions to remove asbestos, machinery oils, and lead paint from the site — and taking down all structures save the radar tower — Midpen reached out to landscape architecture and environmental planning firm Restoration Design Group (RDG) to make this spiritual place both physically and culturally accessible. Over seven years, RDG landscape architects Bob Birkeland, ASLA, Peter Rohan, ASLA, and planner Rich Walkling collaborated with the Amah Mutsun tribe to realize their shared vision. A new Mount Umunhum opened in late 2017 after many years and a $14 million investment.
In a phone interview, Walkling said RDG organized a half-day design charrette with the tribe to plan and design the spiritual revitalization. The tribe not only guided the placement and size of the ceremonial circle, but also its connections to the greater world and its materials.
“They needed to know where the four cardinal directions were, so we put in gaps in the seat walls” to indicate north, south, east, west. The tribe needed to enter the circle from the east, so the access trail to the space was set on the east side. And because the tribe stomps on the ground with their bare feet, the base of the circle was formed of a softer natural substrate.
Beyond bringing the circle back to the peak, RDG also started the process of ecological restoration of the multi-acre peak landscape, which is found within a “coastal influence zone.” Walkling said this has been tricky because “there are not a lot of reference conditions; it’s now much different from its natural state.” RDG worked with a botanist to create multiple restoration patches to see which plants would survive in a place that “receives up to nine inches of rain in a day, 100-mile-an-hour winds, snow, fog, and pounding sun.”
Walkling said the whole process “was very rewarding for the tribe — it’s a process of healing for them.” But perhaps with one caveat: the radar tower, which some groups fought hard to preserve, remains a potent reminder of the place’s military history as well.
Still, after being scattered for so long, the tribe has now been able to “reconstitute, re-ground itself” in its restored home.
In the wonderful video at top, tribal chairman Valentin Lopez explains why it’s so important to restore the greater ecosystem of the peak landscape. “We must heal mother earth — people, plants, wildlife, rivers, fog, rocks, the shadows. They are all alive. There is a responsibility to take care of them all.”
And he has an important message for other communities seeking reconciliation with the past: “Every inch of land was once indigenous land. Get to know whose land you are on. Say a prayer for them. Get to know them.”
Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.
Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.
He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.
He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.
In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”
He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”
In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.
He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:
“Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
Restore and protect wetland systems.
Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
Establish native plant nurseries.”
Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.
Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.
Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.
At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.
And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”
Building Your Values – Curbed New York, 11/20/18
“The Ford Foundation’s restoration of its landmark building makes a bold statement about what architecture owes the public today.”
It’s High Time to Memorialize the South’s History of Lynching — The Architect’s Newspaper, 11/2018
“According to a new report by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) entitled, Landslide 2018: Grounds for Democracy, numerous lynching sites in Shelby County, Tennessee, are virtually unmarked for their historical significance.”
Planning a Neighborhood Square – Western Planner, 11/21/18
“Designing a neighborhood square to fulfill these social functions is not so simple. One of the biggest challenges is to get the proportions of the square right.”
Interview was conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia.
How can landscape architecture educators strike a balance between teaching students about the big picture issues — climate change, urbanization, biodiversity loss — and the practical aspects of designing and building a project in the real world?
The curriculum has to strike the balance. Education should be project-based, because that is the education we’re best at and what really works for designers. Some of those projects start small and work up in scale, and then others start large and work down in scale.
I remember a project when I was teaching at North Carolina State 35 years ago. Arthur Sullivan, who had taught at the University of Pennsylvania and was a scientist, ran a wonderful studio where he asked students to analyze a suburban house, an urban house, and a rural house. He asked them to analyze every bit of water and trash — to discover these homes’ impact on the world. What would have to happen for them to achieve zero resource use? So, it was a small focus, but it looked out.
Whenever students are doing something small — like working out their water system — they’ve got to know where every drop of water ends up. They have to have a realistic view rather than just, “Oh, this is what they did in Portland, and so we’re going to do it here.”
The issue is learning to look at the specific situation and then back out and look at the impact of the small on the large. At the same time, you can look at the impact of large-planning decisions on how small projects are built.
How does landscape architecture education incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) principles, which are viewed as so critical in today’s job market? How is education focused on STEM strengthened by design thinking?
It’s fascinating how in the last decade science and technology curricula have been looking to design schools for design thinking. There’s hardly a well-known engineering, computer technology, or environmental science department that isn’t in some way teaching design thinking now.
What they’re after is out of the box thinking. They are trying to help their students not only follow linear systems, which is the tradition in engineering, but to break out and bite the blue apple. I know one faculty member used to say: “Take that risk, try something that has not yet been prescribed.”
Landscape architects are deeply connected to the environmental sciences. We have been working with environmental scientists through the entire course of the profession. It has become more precise because regulatory requirements have become more complicated. There is still a lot of our population that is aware that when you build a project, it will have impact on the local bay or river, the ocean, and air quality. Because of that awareness, we have clients, particularly government agencies, that want to understand the impact of making a particular decision.
For the most part, all of the good, strong, creative design firms in the country rely on specialists — sometimes landscape architects who have also studied some aspect of ecology or someone who started in ecology and maybe studied landscape architecture or environmental planning. Nobody does anything by themselves any more; there are very complex teams.
As educators, part of what we have to do is to help people find their place. We help them understand the breadth of possibilities and the complexities. Everybody — even if they are the most technical, nerdy kind of person doing very specific things — wants to reach outside the box to solve a problem.
We must recognize each site is unique and you have to solve a situation for a particular site. I’m tired of seeing Portland green infrastructure details appearing in projects all over the country. Every time I go to see a student project somewhere everybody’s thrown in the images of Portland. There probably is a better solution someplace else. The ability to craft things to the unique situation is really important.
How does landscape architecture education need to evolve to meet the needs of increasingly diverse student body and a diverse society?
Undergraduate and graduate landscape architects need to recognize that other people, particularly those in other cultures, see the world differently than they do. People have different value systems. Just because you think it’s wonderful to have a coffee shop on the edge of your project doesn’t mean everyone does.
Now, I think most educators think, “Well, then you do community projects.” But there are other ways as well. Classmates can learn from one another.
I taught the large architecture and landscape architecture urban studies courses with 140 students at University of California at Berkeley. These young freshman are trying to figure out what they want to do in the design world. And talk about diversity — it is Berkeley, where white males are in a minority, and there’s everybody — Southeast Asians, lots of Latino students, African-American students.
They learn from one another if you set up a situation where they’re working in teams. I used to do an exercise where one student makes a collage. If they were going to design a park, they would make a collage of the images of their ideal park. Then we would draw names and someone else would design for this other person’s park. Well, if you grew up in the valley of California of Latino background, your images were quite different from the preppy from New England. I did this years ago at NC State. There, I had a guy from West Texas and a woman from Massachusetts. All of her spaces were enclosed in green, and all of his were vast and open. They had trouble making the transition to the other’s spatial value system.
Community projects are one way to do it, but they’re very complicated, and it takes a sophisticated teacher to do them. They’re best done after students have some experience and build up some skills because there’s often the danger of both disappointing students and the community. They can be excellent experiences, but an experience in which students realize not everybody sees the landscape exactly the way they do.
Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, has called you “sublimely practical.” Do you believe the devil is in the details? How do you teach students to care about the details when they are making something?
Materials are design opportunities. They are the opportunities where we can be the most creative.
Many of our design leaders just do an extraordinary job now. But they didn’t 40 years ago. When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania 40 years ago, it was asphalt with wood trim and brick-banded concrete and that was pretty much what we learned. Poured-in-place concrete. We’ve broadened out quite a bit.
The best way to teach and for students to learn to be creative is through observation. I taught a field trip course at Berkeley. All we would do is go to projects where my colleagues in practice in the Bay Area were very generous to show them projects under constructions, talk about the choice of materials, source of the materials, the problems in installing them, how they worked.
The students would also do a post-material construction evaluation — go to projects and make their own observations, take notes, keep a detail notebook. They would go out with some kind of measuring device. I have them use notebooks with grid paper. They would have to draw-to-scale sketch– not hard line, just draw over a grided scale, a detail of a bike rack or curb edge. They would keep that notebook throughout the semester.
What I was trying to do is give them a new pair of eyes. It’s been very rewarding when I have a student who years later says, “Oh, I still do that. I still go out and look, measure, and try to understand.” We can’t possibly teach in school what you need to know about materials and detailing. What we can do is get people excited about them, make them curious, and give them a new pair of eyes.
The other thing I do in the field trip course is go to offsite manufacturing, so students become familiar with how things are fabricated. The digital age has given us so many different ways to produce materials, with all of the laser cutting and digitally-run equipment that are creates in shops and then installed in the field. These trips also armed students with building techniques they then used in my design-build class.
What’s the worst construction errors you’ve ever seen? And the worst mistake in the application of materials?
I’d be hard pressed to pick one project. I did a lot of work for speculative developers in the D.C. area who were not prone to spend a lot of money. They had some very basic ways of building: poured-in-place concrete, three-inch pipe rail. You’ve seen some of the work over at Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia. They built in pre-cast concrete.
What we tried to do in the Crystal City Water Park is use the materials as best we could so the developers were comfortable using and maintaining the park.
Some of the biggest mistakes are made when your budget and your ideas about what can be built are misaligned. One of the construction field trips we used to go on visited Ron Herman’s very high-end residential projects. They were wonderful to see, because Ron would work with granite that had been cut so precisely to a quarter of an inch. Students could understand the tolerances that he was able to work with, because he had the money. Then we’d go to a public bid project in Berkeley where they were doing poured-in-place concrete. There, you shouldn’t have the expectation that you were going to have the kind of precision that Ron could have.
You learn and observe, but you’re not going to do that while you’re in school. All you can do is set people up to ask: what kind of craftsmanship can I get in this particular situation? Who are the local craftsman? How can I bring them in?
Maybe landscape architects and architects are not very adventuresome about finding the local craftsmen and getting some real bargains out of them in terms of crafted benches, detailing in the landscape. But others are. Many of our most creative landscape architects — even with modest budgets — do this.
You gotta craft to your situation. That’s where I see the worst mistakes: an expectation that every line, every joint is going to line up. If it’s going to the low bidder in a public project, it’s probably not going to line up.
Should all landscape architecture educators practice and all practitioners teach?
No, but some of them should on both ends. Every landscape architecture faculty should include people that have practiced or are actively practicing. That doesn’t mean bringing in the local practitioner to teach a materials class. We need a number of people on the full-time tenure-track faculty who have a role in running the department and developing the curriculum with experience in practice.
Departments also need people who strictly do research on speculative, creative projects like Alan Berger at MIT, or James Corner, ASLA, at the University of Pennsylvania, when he started out. If you have that range of people, then they begin to start conversations with each other.
It takes work on the part of faculty to integrate practitioners who are not being paid. Many of them are very generous, but they really have a time squeeze. I mentioned the construction field trip course. I couldn’t do that without participation of practitioners. But I had to cultivate that relationship. Full-time faculty have to cultivate relationships with local practitioners.
What was it like to be the first woman to run the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design? Did you feel supported or like you had to overcome sexism?
When I studied architecture, I was the only woman in my class. I did not have a woman colleague until I went to the University of Pennsylvania to study landscape architecture. Not only did I have a women student colleagues, but Carol Franklin, FASLA, was one of my instructors. That was a whole new world.
I have my #MeToo stories, believe me, because I was the only woman. I was pretty accustomed to dealing with those kinds of situations.
My colleagues on the landscape architecture department were wonderful. I was the only woman. Well, Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, was there when I first went, but then she left, and there was just me, and then I hired Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, who became chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia and later dean of their architecture school. I have liked having women around.
It was a little more difficult with some of the architecture faculty and administration who put me in a girl box. The girl box is helper-mate. Good administrator; take care of the problem. I’m not saying that my landscape architecture colleagues were like that. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA; Carl Steinitz; Laurie Olin, FASLA; and Peter Walker, FASLA were all terrific to me. They appreciated that I took care of the administrative crap and tried to do it well, but I never felt that they put me in a box.
The first year I started teaching at Harvard, Carl warned me that I would have nearly 90-year-old Norman Newton teaching in the first semester studio with me, even though he’d been retired for 30 years. Norman was known for dismissing women. He was often criticized that his history book didn’t even cover Beatrix Farrand in any comprehensive way. That just kind made me more determined to reach out and develop a bond with him, which I did through an exhibition of his work on construction details. It was also good for me, because it sent me in a whole new direction of how to teach construction. That was the inspiration for me teaching students to go out, observe, and measure existing details.
There are more high-profile women landscape architects and educators than ever before. How has it changed for women practitioners and educators over the past few decades?
It has been terrific because we support each other. With the commissions I sit on, I have been in the position to advocate for women’s firms to be hired. It was no compromise on my part, because we’re talking about Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) and firms like that. But I’ve found you still have to advocate. The more of us out there, the more we can advocate for each other. There’s now a significant old girls’ network.
There are still obstacles. I know women-owned firms where the heads of the firms, even some of our most talented people, struggle to get the interview for a project. The obstacles are more subtle and much less than they used to be.
I want to give thanks to people like Thaisa Way, FASLA, who has writing about the many women from the 1910s-1903 who were doing significant work and were never talked about. At Landscape Architecture Magazine, from Grady Clay up to the current editor Brad McKee, there has been a real effort to make sure women aren’t shunted to the side. Grady Clay was very good when he put Martha Schwartz’s Bagel Garden on the cover of the magazine. When he hired me as construction editor when I was in my 20s — rather than some of the other people who applied — he was a rebel.
Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, is president of HM Design, which has completed planning, architecture, and landscape architecture projects in more than 60 countries. He is an international expert in sustainable tourism, including wildlife conservancy planning and eco-lodge development. Mehta is also the author of Authentic Ecolodges (Harper Design).
In more than 60 countries, you have worked on some of the finest sustainable tourism planning and eco-lodge projects in the world, including the Crosswaters Ecolodge in China, which won two ASLA professional awards. National Geographic has called you a pioneer of sustainable tourism. What are the top three lessons you have learned from your many projects working with local and indigenous communities?
Lesson number one: Never judge people from the way they look. Indigenous people have lived on their land for thousands of years. Through storytelling and personal experiences that have been passed over generations, they have built knowledge and wisdom crucial to every project.
Lesson number two: Empower local people from day one, especially women and children. At home, women make a lot of the decisions, and youth are the future. Bringing them into a project on day one helps ensure a sustainable project. You want to give them ownership. It’s a ground-up approach rather than top-down.
Lesson number three: No matter how much of an international expert you are, no matter how much research you have done, and how much knowledge you have acquired, always go into every project without an ego. Go with good listening skills first. Once you’ve heard local peoples aspirations, needs, etc.; gathered on-site information; walked the site with the locals; and have conducted a metaphysical site analysis, slowly share what you can bring to the table, making sure you let them know what they bring to the table is equally important.
Indigenous communities are in the front lines in the fight against climate change. How do you empower them in their fight to protect endangered ecosystems and their own livelihoods? Are there any projects that serve as models?
Indigenous communities, especially in the less developing world, are greatly affected by climate change. A lot of these communities live in the tropics. Especially in Africa, drought and the lack of drinking water are big issues. This in turn, causes food security problems. In Kenya, where I am still a citizen, the Maasai look at their cattle as their economic lifeline. That’s what keeps them going. If there is drought, there is no grass. There’s nothing to feed the cattle, and it can become a serious issue, because this is their security.
A project that serves as an exemplary model is one in which I led a team of local Kenyan consultants and where we worked together with the clients — the Koiyaki Maasai community — to help create an ecotourism and conservation destination called Naboisho Wildlife Conservancy. Previous to our intervention, the community had subdivided their 50,000-acre land into 50-acre parcels owned by 500 families. But every family had their cattle and goats, which caused the land to be overgrazed. Lack of grass and presence of cattle kept all the wild animals away.
The Maasai decided to consolidate all their land and brought in private lodge operators — eco-tourism companies — as a way to generate income for them. The Maasai all moved to neighboring lands they also owned. The private partners contracted us as protected area ecotourism planners, and, together with the Maasai, tourism and conservation stakeholders, we created an integrated sustainable tourism, biodiversity, and grazing master plan for the conservancy.
With five small twelve-room tents and lodges, money started flowing directly into every Maasai’s home at the end of each month via their mobile cell-phones. They no longer had to rely solely on cattle for their livelihood. Wild animals started coming back, because cattle mainly grazed in neighboring areas. And the tourists are paying big bucks to have quality guided safari experiences. Creating a wildlife conservancy was a win/win for everyone: the tourists, the private partners, flora and fauna and of course the Maasai and their cattle. During droughts, cattle are only allowed into the conservancy in certain controlled areas. The conservancy fees provide the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood and ensure the conservation of the wildlife in this vital corridor of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.
As populations grow around the world, but also in sub-Saharan Africa, human and wildlife conflicts are becoming more prevalent. How can we protect endangered species while also ensuring people’s livelihoods? Are there models that show the way?
There are many models, particularly in Africa, and it has become mainstream to go in this direction. A project that I worked on many years ago that is still a good case study is the Virunga Massif Trans-Boundary protected area. Virunga Massif straddles and borders of three East and Central African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Each country has a national park along their respective borders. This region protects the only remaining populations in the world of mountain gorillas. The parks are bordered by dense populations of local peoples, and there are human-wildlife conflicts with gorillas going out into the fields. We prepared an integrated sustainable tourism and biodiversity master plan for the whole region. When we began the master plan in 2005, there were only 600 mountain gorillas, and the latest count is 1,004!
Apart from conserving important habitat, the master plan also proposed several eco-lodges at the edge of the parks. All of them have now been built and are financially successful. The demand to see the mountain gorillas is so high that eco-tourists are paying $1,500 for one hour to be with these great apes. There’s a one-year waiting list!
What’s great is that some money is channeled straight to local communities, which now see the importance of maintaining the gorillas’ habitat. The communities no longer take firewood from the forest because they earn a living from gorilla tourism and the eco-lodges bring in a lot of money from guests, with part of the profits used to benefit these communities.
A heart-warming part of the master plan just got realized five months ago on the Uganda side of the Virunga Massif in Mgahinga National Park. The Batwa, indigenous peoples, who used to live in the forest but had been chased out when the National Park was created in 1991, have now been re-located to a new village at the edge of the park and act as guides, taking visitors into the forest in the National Park, and showing them about their lives and connections with the forest. An eco-lodge where I had provided site planning consultancy, funded the Batwa village and Visitor Center, so the Batwa community could share their culture and live closer to the forest instead of the nearby urban town of Kisoro.
You have said we cannot have true sustainability without incorporating the spiritual. This belief is central to your metaphysical or sixth-sense approach to planning and designing projects, which you have also trained other planners and designers to apply. What is the core idea you want people to understand?
For the longest time, pragmatic environmentalists have been talking about the triple bottom line of sustainability — environmental, economic, and social. But in my work, I have found that without respecting the fourth element — spiritual — one cannot have sustainability. What do I mean by spiritual? Spirituality is the energy embodied in any place. The metaphysics of a place. The intangible aspects that cannot be measured by modern science. We need to respect this embodied energy to create a sense of place. The sacred space.
Feng Shui is a well-used example of the spiritual aspects of sustainability — the yin and the yang, the chi, and how to use that energy to create an amazing experience in which you have a spiritual connection with the site. Similarly, for over 8,000 years, the Indians have been applying principles of design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry called Vastu Shastra, which is even older than Feng Shui. Vastu Shastra is the ancient Indian science of harmony and prosperous living by eliminating negative energies and enhancing positive energies.
Native Americans also have a strong spiritual connection with their lands. When they take you on a walk of their country, they will point at a hill and say “this is our sacred hill” and when you look around, there are probably several others that look the same. So why is that hill sacred and not the others? It’s because there is a sacred energy embodied in that particular hill. My job as a landscape architect is to work with indigenous communities, so they can identify all those areas sacred to them. And then protect them.
If the clients do not believe in these traditional ways of looking at the land, I propose the use of each one of our six senses to immerse into the site to understand the energy. Connect deeply to the land through the ears, mouth, eyes, nose, fingers, but most importantly through the sixth sense: when you become a part of the site and feel its energy. That is the crucial element of trying to create a project that’s sustainable, but also which creates a beautiful sense of place.
As part of your work of Landscape Architects Without Borders, you have provided pro-bono planning and design services to aboriginal tribes in Australia and other communities. How do you enable them to incorporate their landscape spirituality into a contemporary place designed for themselves but also tourists?
We worked with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia. They were the first aboriginal tribe that managed to get their land back from the white government in an area so close to a major city; Brisbane in this case. The land they got back was part of an island and has the second most popular camping sites in Australia.
However, the aboriginal peoples do not have camping site management experience, so we came in to help them build an ecotourism experience that would help them share their culture with guests and help make more money than before. We designed and built two glamping eco-shacks as examples of what they can achieve with enhanced camping experiences.
In the gardens, we proposed for the planting of bush tucker plants. The aboriginal peoples, who live in the outback have these special plants they eat called bush tucker. With their knowledge and wisdom, we created a beautiful indigenous garden that included both bush tucker and medicinal plants.
You are a proponent of ego-less design, which is characterized by a deep respect for the environment and all of its inhabitants, existing cultures, and vernacular styles. Can you explain how you came across this design philosophy? What about your upbringing, your religious heritage, shaped that?
My childhood has heavily influenced the work I do in landscape architecture. My upbringing is in the philosophy of Jainism, which is one of the four main philosophies that came out of India. It’s by far the least known, because Jains don’t believe in preaching.
One of the main tenets of this philosophy is a Sanskrit concept called Ahimsa, which means non-violence to fellow beings, and non-violence to all other beings as well. In my family, we’ve been vegetarians for at least 3,000 years. The respect is so deep for other beings that Jain monks in India sweep the floor before they walk so they do not step on and kill any ants.
In true Jainism, they believe plants have feelings. In fact, modern science is confirming this, but my ancestors have believed this since 1,000 BC. True Jains don’t eat anything that grows below the ground — no potatoes or carrots — because every time you pick that plant, it’s dead. So you only pick a vegetable or fruit from a tree that continues living after you picked what you want. That is deep respect, even to plants. It’s all about low-impact living. This is the conservation ethic I practice in my work.
My projects are low-impact designs that respect everything. I practice a non-homocentric approach to planning, where everything is equal. You can call it vegan or ahimsa design and planning. I design non-violent spaces. For example, I identify all native species and make sure none of them are cut. And in all our projects, we only specify native plants.
And, personally, I have been practicing a vegan lifestyle for 13 years.
Lastly, you have called yourself a “holistic, contextual designer.” How do you think this is different from being a planner or landscape architect?
For me, there’s a big difference between holistic and contextual design. Holistic is when in my projects I look at animals and plants as my clients, too. So, when human clients come to me, I tell them: I see you as half of my clients, but the other half are the animals and plants. And when I perform a beautiful marriage of the two, we will have a holistic yet sustainable project.
Local communities are an important part of the holistic process. I involve them from the beginning. Local consultants also bring in amazing knowledge and wisdom. So, I consider the local consultants and communities, fauna, flora, and, of course, the clients’ financial needs, because a project has to be profitable for it to function. That is the holistic side.
I also look at myself as a contextual designer. I like to create projects in context with their cultural and physical environments. For me, placing in a glass, aluminum, and concrete building in the middle of a remote area with rich cultural architectural heritage is not contextual. My office carries out research both off-site and on-site in order to discover the local vernacular styles before starting on any project. We use a landscape design approach called the “continuity of the vernacular.”
“How can we make maintenance sexier and more fun?”
This was the question moderator Joey Hays, ASLA, posed to the crowd at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, in a session entitled “the disturbing pleasures of maintenance: audacious strategies for public parks,” which sought to address the increasingly-fraught issue of public parks maintenance and inspire creative, aesthetic, and ecological approaches to what can often seem a decidedly-mundane topic.
Tim Marshall, FASLA, was quick to respond to Hayes’ question. “Sexy and fun–those are not two things I’ve ever heard in the same sentence regarding maintenance,” he said to knowing laughs.
Maintenance may not be something that excites designers, clients, or the public, but its implementation–or lack thereof–can make all the difference in the success or failure of a project.
Marshall, who formerly served as deputy administrator and senior vice president of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City, said maintenance has become more problematic on a national level. Many parks and recreation departments have expanded their portfolios of amenities and facilities in recent decades, but operations funding has not kept up.
“We have more things to maintain, and at the same time, resources are going down.”
Recent trends in ecological design have not made things easier. Designs that rely heavily on meadows and other designed plant communities require specialized knowledge to maintain, knowledge often not held by maintenance crews accustomed to the “mow and blow” approach.
“Put in a lawn, you know exactly what to do right away,” he said. “A meadow changes year to year. It’s not a project, it’s a process.”
One of the biggest obstacles facing parks departments is what Marshall called the “silver tsunami,” the looming wave of retiring experienced staff who will take with them institutional knowledge, relationships, and experience.
Loss of funding and staff can lead to deferred maintenance, which inflates capital costs and depresses park use.
According to Marshall, public-private partnerships like the Central Park Conservancy have been key to filling the operational gaps left by budget cuts and staffing shortages. However, those partnerships come with their own challenges.
“There has to be an understanding that we’re in this together,” he said, adding “it probably took ten years before the Central Park Conservancy was firing on four of its six cylinders.”
Tim Netsch of the Metro Nashville Parks Planning Division has experienced these dynamics first hand. “There’s so much happening in Nashville that parallels some those national trends. There is something unsustainable about our current park system.”
Nashville has seen explosive growth in recent decades, which has extended the city’s park system. Since the adoption of the city’s first parks and greenways master plan in 2002, the park system has added approximately 6,500 acres.
“Our park system grew more in this 15 year period than it had in the previous 50 years,” Netsch said. “During that same period of capital budget abundance, our operating budget has stagnated,” leading to fewer maintenance employees per acre and reduced operating hours.
“Our park system has grown, but our organization has not.”
To break out of this cycle, Nashville asked Charlottesville-based Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) to incorporate maintenance needs into the design of two new large public parks currently being planned for East Nashville.
“We wanted to build these plans around maintenance,” Netsch said. “To make it unavoidable to reckon with maintenance.”
For Thomas Woltz, FASLA, that meant diving deep into the sites’ cultural and ecological histories. On the future site of Ravenwood Park, just east of downtown Nashville, Woltz said: “an extraordinary phenomenon here is you have 8,000 years of Native American settlement in a not terribly disturbed site.”
“What if, in the cultural landscape research, you hit upon a regime of maintenance? What if the maintenance design is right there, deep within the soil?”
In the case of Ravenwood Park, NBW has proposed a mixed regime of controlled burns and grazing by cows, maintenance practices that reflect the history of the site and provide valuable ecological disturbance that will maintain broad expanses of open grassland.
For Woltz, it is here that the “disturbing pleasures”–or pleasures that result from disturbance–reveal themselves. “Part of the disturbing pleasure is the exhilaration of witnessing a fire,” he said, “and the sublime landscape of these post-fire moments when the earth surges with this chartreuse explosion of grasses.”
This aesthetic of disturbance can reframe the conversation around maintenance and even create opportunities to design powerful spaces and experiences.
To illustrate this point, Woltz pivoted to another major public project that NBW has spent many years on: Houston’s Memorial Park.
In their research, NBW found that many Houstonians were unaware of the park’s history and did not know why it was called Memorial Park. The site was used as an army camp in World War I and was the last stop for many soldiers before being shipped to Europe.
NBW’s design calls for a 90 acre Memorial Grove of Loblolly Pines planted in a strict, regimented grid, referring to the character of the military exercises and rows of tents that once defined the site. The heart of NBW’s proposal, however, lies in the grove’s maintenance regime.
“Twenty-five years is the average age of the solider that died in World War I who trained at Camp Logan. Twenty-five years is the age of maturity for loblolly pines in the timber industry,” Woltz explained.
“So, twenty-five years from the planting of the Memorial Groves, imagine one of those regiments–a thousand trees–ceremonially chainsawed down on Memorial Day. The noise, the impact, the violence, the horror of seeing a thousand trees felled at once in a city’s park will be something you will never forget. And you just might feel, in your body, the sense and the power of sacrifice and of loss of life.”
Woltz said that the timber from the felled trees would then be given to Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing in the Houston area. He envisions Houstonians coming together on Armistice Day to replant the thousand felled trees for another twenty-five year cycle. Every five years, a new group of trees would be felled.
“This is a memorial, in perpetuity, connecting us to the cycles of life, connecting us to the power of life, the beauty of these trees representing these individuals who were felled far, far, too early.”
“As an extreme example, this is a maintenance regime. Maintenance has been used as the very crux of a memorial landscape.”