Conservation: Geniuses of Place– Nature.com, 7/6/16
“Ethan Carr traces the arc of influence in landscape creation and preservation from ‘Capability’ Brown to Frederick Law Olmsted and the US National Park Service.”
Playful Variation on Ring Forms Performance Space at Ragdale in Lake Forest – Chicago Tribune, 7/8/16
“There’s something about a ring, the kind that gathers people in a circle. From Stonehenge to the layered-stone ‘council rings’ of landscape architect Jens Jensen, circular open-air structures have long liberated us from the straight lines of everyday life and created places for shared experience.”
Montreal Trades Expressway for “Urban Boulevard”– Next City, 7/11/16
“Montreal has begun tearing down its part of a mid-century expressway to make way for a greener, more transit- and pedestrian-friendly boulevard, reports the Montreal Gazette.”
“Landscapes have long been essential to the transfer of knowledge,” said Daniel Bluestone, a professor of history, art, and architecture at Boston University at Dumbarton Oaks’ symposium on landscape and the academy. In ancient Greece, “Hippocrates taught the art of medicine under a tree. And in China, there has been a tradition of educational landscapes, including the book garden.” Fast forward to the founding of some early colleges and universities in the United States, and we see the beginning of a “distinctly American type of educational landscape,” with gardens, arboreta, and designed views. Early American university campuses were designed to “train the eye to outside beauty,” create a long-lasting appreciation for nature, and build important values like self-reliance. Today, some of those American universities are now at the forefront of education about sustainability and resilience. “University landscapes can create a profound connection with the ecology of our world. We need students who understand climate change. A university can make these issues manifest in the landscape.”
The symposium covered vast ground; here are highlights from some of the campus landscapes discussed:
The University of Virginia: This model American campus was laid out by president Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s. He envisioned a central mall surrounded by buildings, with “spaces for learning intended to promote the stewardship of knowledge, an academical village,” explained Bluestone. The idea was to give people “space to develop a sense of where they were” — in this case, the Virginia landscape, which was central to the original campus and became a sort of living learning lab, in today’s lingo, “where students could reflect on their place in the greater ecological scheme of things.” It was also a productive landscape: students would pass by kitchen gardens and know where their food came from. (The image below is of Jefferson’s kitchen garden at Monticello, but it perhaps gives an idea of what those would have looked like).
Harvard University: Joseph Claghorn, a fellow at Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, gave a sweeping tour of Harvard Yard through the ages, arguing that the shift away from the grand Elm tree monoculture of Harvard Yard to a more diverse, resilient tree canopy, under the guidance of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is mirrored in shift away from being a white, elitist college to a more diverse one. (However, one could also argue that only elite institutions like Harvard can afford to be so resilient). Claghorn traces the evolution of Harvard Yard over the years, explaining that there had been three waves of Elm deaths before the move diverse planting scheme was created, which still features the stunning Elm roof but also includes blooming yellow woods and many other species.
Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the U.S., has largely had an organic evolution over the past 375 years. In the beginning, there was no masterplan for the campus. By the 1720s, the college had settled on an “open quadrangle, not cloistered like Oxford.” Claghorn says this distinction is important: In the United Kingdom, the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge had roots in monasteries — they were isolated, exclusive places for learning — but Harvard, in its early years at least, was open and directly linked with the Cambridge Commons, which “reflected the mutual dependence between college and town.” By the early 1800s, however, the college had become a university, with multiple schools, and become “largely segregated from the neighboring working-class community.”
The epitome of this segregation was the addition of a church on Harvard’s campus, which meant students no longer ventured into Cambridge to worship with their neighbors. Gates were added to further separate the campus. Those gates were later used to the defensive advantage of student protestors in the 1960s and 70s. In the past few decades, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates began to diversify the campus landscape, as the Elms were infected by Dutch Elm disease. Today, some subsidiary spaces even have apple trees — a far cry from the totality of the Elms. Diversity and resilience is now increasingly depicted through the campus landscape.
U.S. Military Academy at West Point: John Dean Davis, who is studying for his Ph.D at Harvard, delved into the landscape of the oldest continual military installation in the country. The early campus experience for the male cadets was “drudgery punctuated by moments enjoying nature.” The sprawling campus in upstate New York allowed for “roaming in the Hudson River valley.” In the early 1900s, the Olmsted brothers created a masterplan that featured an “active plane,” a vast central lawn, and the preservation of forested watersheds. Today, the active plane where marching drills were once held now contains sports field and a helipad. And instead of free immersions in the wilderness of the military reservation, cadets are bound in mediated REI-like experiences in controlled natural settings. Enjoyment of wild nature has been tamed in favor of safety and discipline.
Vassar College: In contrast with West Point, Vassar, the first endowed women’s college in the U.S., incorporated landscape exploration into the actual curriculum, said Karen Van Lengen, professor of architecture, University of Virginia. The campus in Poughkeepsie, New York, was separated from the town. Its ambitious landscape plan evolved incrementally over time, but was crafted to have “an effect on the students.” Some of the first women ecologists in the country led classes featuring the campus landscape. Each class at Vassar also contributed to the development of the landscape by planting trees. “Tree day was an important ceremony.” It grew to become a “nocturnal, cult-like event, with dances and poetry.” Commencements even involve constructed, ceremonial views of trees. Today, Vassar remains a “leading institution for environmental studies and uses its campus to teach about ecology and conservation.”
John Beardsley, director of the landscape program at Dumbarton Oaks, remarked how the landscape of Vassar was designed to encourage independent thinking, while West Point’s emphasized the collective, despite moments of freedom in nature.
Duke University: Mark Hough, FASLA, university landscape architect at Duke, and Linda Jewell, FASLA, a just-retired professor from the University of California Berkeley, explained the history of this picturesque campus in Durham, North Carolina, and the unique role it plays as both public garden and educational institution. From the beginning, Duke had “Ivy envy,” explained Hough. That resulted in massive investments by the Duke family, one of the wealthiest in the south, in creating a campus that “looked like it was carved out of pristine nature.” Today, the campus is wrestling with how to integrate more contemporary landscape architecture into the historic campus, and manage a $1 billion building campaign that will result in new projects by West 8, Reed Hilderbrand, and Stephen Stimson Associates.
Last year, the university’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens received over 300,000 visitors, explained Jewell. Considered the highlight of the campus, the gardens feature a designed pond — that is beautiful but also manages stormwater — and “exuberant flora.” In 2007, the gardens got the first full time director, who was put in “take it to the next level.” While the gardens clearly attract lots of visitors, they are also designed for the students. WiFi is now accessible to enable “passive study.” And then there’s the trickier student interactions to manage. Hough explained that “it has become a social ritual to have sex in the gardens before you graduate.” He laughed, “you can’t take the students out of the campus.”
Hough explained how students’ deep concern about sustainability led Duke to LEED-certify all their buildings in the early 00s and resulted in a shift away from manicured gardens to more ecological ones. A severe drought in 2007 also led Duke to reduce its dependence on the municipal water system, with a 12-acre pond that Warren Byrd, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, unearthed and turned into a campus nature park, adding some 40,000 native plants. The new ecological landscape, which just opened last year, saves the university 100 million gallons in water use a year. Hough said this new landscape is an example of how Duke is “blurring the lines between infrastructure, student life, ecology, and engineering” while still making places that are “as beautiful as possible.”
Jewell said in the past five years, she has witnessed a huge increase in awareness about the role campus landscapes can play in sustainability. A simple question like, “do we have too much grass?” has “opened the door” to much broader conversations.
You were an expert adviser to PBS’s new show, 10 Parks That Changed America, which airs nationwide on April 12. The 10 parks the producers selected include, in chronological order: the squares of Savannah, Georgia; Fairmount Park in Philadelphia; Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Central Park in New York City; Chicago’s Neighborhood Parks; The Riverwalk in San Antonio in Texas; Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee; Freeway Park in Seattle, Washington; Gas Works Park in Seattle, Washington; and, finally, the High Line in New York City.
Looking at these 10 parks that changed America, what story do they tell? What are the through-lines from the 1700s to today?
It’s a pretty concise story. It’s the evolution of our use of public space; the evolving definitions of what the public realm is. The film starts with the squares of Savannah, Georgia that were designed for an ideal town that was supposed to be based on equanimity and justice. Community life would be centered around public parks. We can move all the way through to Central Park in New York City, essentially the first public park. Then, you get into Gas Works Park and Freeway Park in Seattle, which use urban infrastructure to create new kinds of public realms. We could argue the High Line in New York City is yet another definition of the public realm — the alternative use of former infrastructure for the public.
If you could identify just one park that you think has the most impactful legacy, which would you choose?
I hate that question! There’s never one. But if you are making me, I would start with Savannah and its vision of an ideal town. Savannah is so important because those public squares came out of the founders’ original ideas of equality for everyone. The public realm reflected that, at least until they introduced slavery decades after the founding of the city.
Before Savannah, those kinds of landscapes only belonged to the royalty or the rich. The idea that public squares would be at the center of a democratic, or seemingly democratic space, is really critical.
I like choosing Savannah because everybody else would choose Central Park. And, yes, Central Park is really important, but I argue for Savannah because it establishes a language about democratic space that is critical to this long story. Plus, it will annoy people.
There a number of parks you wanted to see included but just didn’t make the cut. Which other parks did you really make a case for?
I tried really hard for the Lurie Garden for a very specific reason: it introduced the idea of a garden in the city, the garden as part of the public realm, which is different than a botanical garden or a park. Lurie Garden is why the High Line could come into existence the way that it did. Lurie Garden made us see the public realm differently.
The other one I argued for was Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, one of the adoptions of streets as public space or public park, which was another important move.
In your mind, which parks should have been cut?
The High Line didn’t need to be included. It’s the hottest thing in the market right now, but we’ve seen it. Other important parks made the High Line possible. Also, unfortunately, James Corner, ASLA, the landscape architect behind the project, didn’t make the time for the interview, so we only heard from Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the architects on the project.
I’m not convinced the Riverwalk in San Antonio, which has a wonderful and fascinating history, has had the same effect of some of the other parks featured.
I lobbied for Seattle’s Gas Works Park and also Freeway Park. All but one of the show’s advisers mentioned both those parks, so that was more of a clincher than any of my arguments.
I lobbied for Gas Works Park because it changed the way we saw our toxic urban sites. Before Gas Works, we took toxic soil and dumped it into some poor neighborhood’s landfill. After Gas Works Park, we decided we had to deal with it on site. We had to keep the memory of previous historical decisions in the landscape, such as industry, even if we may not love that history. That opened up the door to the way we deal with cities today. The way we think about cities and infrastructure today is a legacy of Gas Works. It’s critically important, even internationally.
Freeway Park didn’t have as big of an effect, but it was a whole new way of thinking about infrastructure. In the long run, it’s going to have more impact, it has just taken longer to do that.
All the parks featured in the solved major social, public health, and environmental problems. Are today’s parks solving our new, immense challenges — climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality, and falling democratic participation?
For the most part, no. Europeans are pushing those boundaries more than we are for a whole number of reasons. One is, frankly, the immigration crisis.
There are individual projects that are beginning to do that but on the whole, but we are still too stuck in the idea that parks are about grass, trees, and masses of people. This is the Project for Public Spaces approach to parks, which is if there are a lot of people — doesn’t matter who — then it’s successful. What’s needed is a re-evaluation of the public realm to serve immigrant and under-served communities and adapt to climate change.
We haven’t addressed these challenges because landscape architects haven’t been willing. There are a number of landscape architects who are talking about these issues. But our public realm is not invested in by the government, people, and patrons, so there are significant obstacles. Only some landscape architects are willing to truly go out on a limb and really argue for some of the dramatic things that we need to consider. That’s the challenge ahead of us.
Frankly, the challenge also is in pedagogy — it’s a challenge for our universities. How do we prepare students to make that argument without making them irrelevant? You can’t jump too far because then you just sound like you’re barking up a tree. Landscape architects have to be able to deal with the reality and persuade civic governments to invest in public space. Sadly, that’s a tough sell these days.
I was at a conference for the last two days in Italy, which was called Urban Landscape as Challenge. Two former heads of Italian Parliament were at this meeting. Both of them had design backgrounds. They were talking about the importance of the public realm and landscape architecture. I want to challenge you to think of a single politician who comes from a design background and spends their time arguing for the design of public realm in the States. What I’d love to do is train more of our landscape architecture students to consider going into politics. How’s that for a challenge?
There’s so many types of public space innovations featured in the show. They reflected cutting-edge thinking at their time. But through their success, they also created models that could be copied and even become commonplace. So, imagine 50 to 100 years in the future. What park innovation has not been created that will become mainstream in our distant future?
Okay, I do not have my silver ball, but here are a couple of ideas.
First, parks are going to become places of climate adaptation, like Mill Race Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which can deal with floods, or they are going to be explicitly designed to provide shade. As the climate changes, we’re going to have to deal with water retention and different biodiversity criteria, too. We’ve begun to address these issues, but we can’t until we get more public investment. Landscape architects, ecologists, and climate change scientists are doing this, but their efforts are going to become more profound and challenging to the status quo.
Second, I don’t know what it will look like, but the sharing economy will play a larger role in the public realm. All of these semi-capitalist, semi-sharing firms like Uber, Airbnb, and others, will engage public spaces. There could be virtual markets that become places where you come and display your wares, but in more of a bartering system. Streets are going to become public spaces for all kinds of commerce. I saw this sitting in Rome, where the streets have all sorts of pop-up stuff happening.
Third, we’re going to see other definitions of public space and uses that grow from diversity and immigration. In the 19th century, there were lots of small city parks in New York City. One of the struggles for the New York City government was to get immigrants to use the parks the way they thought they should be used. Immigrants would come in and use it the way they wanted to use it. The city government would then come in and clean it up. We’re going to see more spaces for immigrants and diverse communities, as well as displaced and homeless populations — places made through their own vision of public space. It’s going to look different. Every space isn’t going to be for everyone. These places will not be about serving the most number of people. It’s going to be about serving the locals in multiple ways. They might be places for alternative agriculture or other food production, or a place for communal cooking and eating.
We’re going to see different kinds of public spaces that will continue the evolution we see in 10 Parks That Changed America, from Savannah to the High Line. Just as Savannah couldn’t imagine the High Line or Gas Works Park, there are things now we can’t imagine.
Depending on your perspective, Pershing Park, which stands on a central spot on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. is either a unique, Modern landscape that deserves to be protected under the National Register of Historic Places, or an outdated, unwelcoming park that fails to meet the needs of its visitors and needs to be redesigned. The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) sees Pershing Park, which was completed in 1981 but has since fallen into a state of disrepair, as worthy of rehabilitation. Designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, with a subsequent planting design by Oehme, van Sweden, it was once a striking urban park and it houses a protected memorial to WWI General John Pershing. But the leaders of the World War I Memorial Centennial Commission, which was created under an Act of Congress, would like to see a new design for the site — the winner of its national design competition: The Weight of Sacrifice by Joseph Weishaar, a 25-year-old architect, landscape architect Phoebe McCormick Lickwar, ASLA, and sculptor Sabin Howard. Their more traditional design aims to improve access and use bas-relief on 10-foot-high walls to tell a rich story of World War I. The commission has raised about $6 million so far for an effort they say will cost $38 million. Meanwhile, all parties are awaiting word from the National Park Service, which should decide shortly on whether the park will be included in the National Register of Historic Places. If it is, the commission’s ability to alter Friedberg’s design will be greatly circumscribed.
In a briefing at the National Press Club, WWI Memorial Centennial Commission vice chair Edwin Fountain said the style of the park should be “recognizable to the veterans of the war. It should appear timeless.” But he added that the new park, if it moves forward, will not be a “living memorial” for veterans, as the last WWI veteran died 5 years ago. Instead, it will be a commemorative, educational place that allows both children of veterans to grieve and visitors to learn about the war.
Architect Joe Weishaar added the site should also be a great place to have lunch and work as a neighborhood park, which he conceded it does well enough now. But he said the park’s sunken center is a “blind spot” and he wants to raise that up and turn it into a lawn, giving people more green space (see image at top). The sculptures, which will run across a 10-foot-high expanse, would be a tactile, sensory experience. Sculptor Sabin Howard envisions bas-relief in three segments that deal with the time prior to the war, during the war, and then the aftermath. He wants to create an “uplifting story of transformation, showing how noble the human race can be.” He wants visitors to have a “visceral response to the emotional aspects of the war,” but to leave with the idea that “there is sense of unity in the universe.” Weishaar and Howard also want the sculpture’s movements through periods of chaos to order to be reflected in a new planting design.
While Fountain, Weishaar, and Howard imagine a new design for the site, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president and CEO of TCLF, Darwina Neal, FASLA, former president of ASLA, and others, want to see a protected and rehabilitated Pershing Park, which has deteriorated due to decades of lapsed maintenance. The fountain, which used to a great draw, is now defunct. It used to become an ice-skating rink in winter, but the underlying infrastructure that made that happen has been moribund for years.
Cracked, uneven pavers are now one of the defining features on the ground. And lots of the trees aren’t in good shape either. But Birnbaum and others argue it could once again become the draw it clearly once was if it was rehabilitated, which would involve “making some changes, but keeping the signature and character-defining features intact.”
In a recent release, Birnbaum said the commission knew the park may end up on the National Register of Historic Places, but they decided to go ahead with their own designs anyhow. “They opted for conflict over collaboration.”
When asked to share his most recent thoughts after the National Press Club briefing, Birnbaum elaborated: “A critical failing of the WWI Memorial design process has been a lack of collaboration by WWI Commission, which has created a severe threat to an important work by M. Paul Friedberg, the most recent recipient of the ASLA Medal. WWI Commission vice-chair Edwin Fountain stated at the March 2, 2016 National Press Club event that he and the commission are ‘in conversations’ with TCLF, which suggests there’s an ongoing dialogue – that is simply not true. In fact, in my only substantive conversation with Mr. Fountain – a telephone call after the competition was first announced – it was clear that Mr. Fountain had no interest in anything we had to say about how a sympathetic rehabilitation of this significant Friedberg design, which we believe will be determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, could also satisfy the aims and objectives of the commission.”
More collaboration among all parties will be needed after the National Park Service announces its decision. And Fountain partly acknowledged this, saying that a public regulatory process is underway, and any changes to the park need to be approved by the Commission on Fine Arts, National Capital Planning Commission, and, finally, the National Park Service, which manages the park. Whatever the outcome, one long-term question is: can this park be well-maintained moving forward? If not, we may be back to where we are now 30 years in the future.
How does a historic, monumental city with a defined border and building-height limit accommodate the influx of another 150,000 people over the next two decades? For District Mayor Muriel Bowser and planning director Erik Shaw, who spoke at an event at the Howard Theater, a major part of the answer is adaptive reuse, which involves transforming a building or site into some new use it wasn’t originally designed for. This approach enables cities to preserve some of the original character and feel of a place while updating it for contemporary realities.
Washington, D.C. has gained in population since 2000, when it hit a low-point of 572,000. The city now has 658,000 residents. Since 2000, there has been 150 million square feet of new development, much of it in the city’s 46 historic districts, to accommodate all the new residents, up to 1,000 people per month. Shaw said city planners have largely “maintained the integrity of the place, but it has been a balancing act.” And this balancing act will only get more difficult as the population is expected to increase a further 20 percent.
Mayor Bowser said D.C. needs to plan decades ahead for the expected population explosion. She admitted there will be big changes — “nothing stays the same.” Increased development may mean more “pressure,” particularly for low-density areas now being retrofitted to become higher density. Higher density development and less parking means greater strain on already over-taxed public transportation systems. But to create a new balance, Bowser’s administration is undertaking a comprehensive plan that will build on “examples from the past that were respectful of our values.”
One example from today, which was highlighted by a panel that followed Bowser and Shaw, is the new O Street Market, an adaptive reuse project in the Shaw neighborhood of D.C. O Street Market, a charismatic Victorian building, opened in 1881, with ample light, ventilation, and easy-to-clean sanitary surfaces. In 1968, the market closed amid the riots that roiled the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the early 1970s, it was restored and reopened as a market for vendors, with a Giant supermarket coming in next door. In 1993, the market was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but by then, it had already become a symbol of the city’s “urban decay and dysfunction,” as eight people were shot in and around the building in one particularly bloody incident, writes The Washington Post. Vendors fled the marketplace amid rampant drug violence.
In 2001, a few developers made a bet the neighborhood would come back and decided to make an investment in the then-decrepit building. Roadside Development, along with Madison Retail Group, purchased the building, but, just a few years later, the old market’s roof collapsed in a snow storm. Richard Lake, Roadside Development, said the setbacks didn’t stop them, as the “community had a clear vision of what they wanted.” However, it still took more than 7 years before the D.C. Zoning Commission, Historic Preservation Review Board, and planning department approved the $325 million expansion of the market into the City Market at O, a multi-use development.
What was once a empty building with a collapsed roof was reopened as the largest Giant supermarket in the district in 2013. According to Keith Sellars, president, Washington DC Economic Partnership, this is a major success story. “10-15 years ago, we had to beg Giant to come to the core of D.C. But now they want a historic, authentic building for their 78,000-square foot flagship.”
Within City Market at O, there’s a 90-unit senior housing building that was filled up within weeks of opening and already has a multi-year wait list, along with a 555-unit market price apartment complex, with 550-square-foot one-bedrooms that go for a whopping $2,700. There’s a 182-unit hotel run by Cambria Suites. And another affordable housing building is in the works, with an additional 142 units opening in 2017. Just last year, the entire development won the Urban Land Institute’s global award for excellence competition.
Architect Shalom Baranes, who created 50-60 different architectural models of the revitalized O Street Market over the years before it was approved, said the developers and architects “brought their best game to a culturally-rich neighborhood.” The new Giant in the shell of the Victorian building well “juxtaposes modern and traditional.”
Meanwhile, housing prices just keep going up in gentrifying Shaw, which was 25 percent white in 2000 and is now more than half white. Mayor Bowser’s vision is of a “world-class, inclusive city,” and, in Shaw, she told The Washington Post, “it’s not too late for this to be a neighborhood where low-income and expensive housing exist side-by-side over the long term.” Her administration is investing $100 million in an expanded affordable housing trust fund, which helps tenants purchase their older, rent-stabilized apartments before they are sold and redeveloped. But as can be seen in the multi-year waiting list for the 99-unit senior housing built at City Market at O and so many other subsidized housing services, demand far exceeds supply. For a share of the city’s population, inclusion only happens with more affordable housing. Without inclusion, there will be no rich cultural heritage to preserve alongside the adapted old buildings.
Houston, Texas, America’s fourth largest city, is in the middle of a rebirth, argues Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and a number of design journalists. A city known as “car-centric and zoning-adverse” is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get people out of cars and into parks. Within this sprawled-out city, under spaghetti loops of concrete highways, there are now networks of accessible parks, trails for running and biking, and bayous for kayaking and canoeing. Many of these public amenities also double as green infrastructure, constructed systems that provide habitat for a range of species, manage stormwater, and protect against flooding.
According to TCLF, Houston is “undergoing a monumental landscape architecture-led transformation whose scale and impact could fundamentally change the city and influence city-shaping around the globe.” The questions then are: How has Houston — the mecca of skyscrapers, highways, concrete, cars, and oil — shed some of its bad habits and created places for people? And as Houston undertakes this green makeover, what lessons does it offer to other car-centric cities that want to improve quality of life?
To delve more deeply into how Houston is changing its identity through landscape architecture, TCLF has put together Leading with Landscape II, a day-long conference on March 11. The conference will be followed by What’s Out There Weekend Houston on March 12-13, which will feature two days of free, expert-led tours.
Attendees of the conference will hear from Mayor Sylvester Turner, the current Mayor of Houston; Annise Parker, former Mayor; parks department officials; as well as the leading landscape architects who are shaping Houston’s future, including: Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, SWA Group; James Burnett, FASLA, Office of James Burnett; Sheila Condon, FASLA, Clark Condon; Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, Hargreaves Associates; Douglas Reed, FASLA, Reed Hilderbrand; and Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, and many others.
The 26 What’s Out There tours will take visitors everywhere from SWA Group’s award-winning Buffalo Bayou Park, in image at top, to Rice University’s Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion, created by the Office of James Burnett, and Discovery Green, a park Hargreaves Associates designed in 2008.
James F. Palmer, PhD, PLA, FASLA, is the owner of Scenic Quality Consultants and senior landscape architect with T. J. Boyle Associates, both in Burlington, Vermont. He is professor emeritus at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Explore his research. The interview was conducted at the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago.
Many of the most egregious activities are better hidden than they were 50 years ago. I am thinking of junk yards and dumps. Plus, many places now prohibit or restrict large signs and billboards. The public is much more likely to assert their right to pleasing visual surroundings, something that was less likely to happen 50 years ago. However, I am always surprised by how little organized support there is for protecting scenic quality.
The national park and environment movements both began to protect scenery, particularly the most spectacular scenery, but the environmental movement has moved their attention elsewhere in the past few decades.
The national park movement began with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The Organic Act, which established the National Park Service (NPS), was passed in 1916. The purpose was to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The NPS created coffee table books to popularize remote parks. This technique was latter used by the Sierra Club and others to protect the scenic environment; think building support for the Wilderness Act and establishing Redwoods National Park in the 1960s.
The American environmental movement began with the founding of the Sierra Club by John Muir in 1892. An iconic achievement of the environmental movement was the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which directs the federal government to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.”
Loss of scenery was used to advance both movements. However, the environmental movement today seems to largely ignore the importance of scenery to the vast majority of the public, unless they can use it for fundraising. While the environmental movement is still healthy, it’s less focused on protecting visual quality and more focused about climate change and biodiversity. We would have greater success addressing these issues if environmentalists recognized and responded to the public’s concerns about the scenic effects of the “solutions” being proposed, rather than dismissing them as unimportant.
You measure scenic quality. How is this done? What makes one place more scenic than another?
Scenery appreciation is a human perception. It can be measured by sampling people and asking them to evaluate scenes or simulations. Sample surveys of the public is a way to directly measure their appreciation. This approach is sufficiently effective that Western democracies commonly used polling to inform all sorts of government policies.
The landscape also has intrinsic qualities, such as topographic relief and land cover. These qualities can be used to predict visual quality. For example, this first image below is a landscape most Americans would agree is not scenic: an open field of asphalt visually enclosed by a shopping center, transmission lines, and trees.
This second image is obviously scenic, but the composition is actually similar to the first image. Here, there is an expanse of open water in the foreground, backed by natural woods and transmission structures.
This next image would be considered even more scenic by many people: open water backed by forested mountains.
In another example: these images have a similar composition, except the first image below has an pasture backed by a forested hill in fall color, while the second has a lake backed by a forested hill in fall color. They are both quite scenic, but water gives the view an extra boost.
You evaluate the negative impacts on scenic quality and how to mitigate those. What impacts on scenic beauty are you most often called in to deal with? What are the best ways to limit their impacts?
Now my work mostly deals with energy projects: wind, solar, and transmission lines. The most common ways to mitigate the visual impact of these projects are to hide them from view or reduce their visible contrast with the surroundings. This mostly involves contrasts in color, but also shape and texture. This is difficult to do with wind, so governments are exploring other ways to mitigate their impact on scenic assets, like fixing a blight somewhere else, or concentrating development in one area in return for protecting another area.
I cringe when I hear opposition groups call for less government, since only pro-active government planning will protect some landscapes as we fight to mitigate the worst impacts on scenery. Government planning is also needed to counteract the effects of climate change, but a great nation should be able to accomplish both goals.
What do you think of the new generation of digital billboards along highways?
They are terrible, but I am particularly worried about safety. They keep changing! Once, a glance gave you the message. Now there is a whole story to be followed. They are an attractive nuisance and should be banned from all roadways.
They offer the same potential for visual blight that billboards did originally. While one sign informing residents about community events may be acceptable, the cacophony of “free speech” simply destroys the sense of place valued by residents. There needs to be reasonable limits.
Nearly a decade ago you published a study on how to best reduce the negative impacts of clear-cutting on the natural beauty of forests. What were your main findings?
The White Mountain National Forest was interested in how size, intensity, and pattern of clear cut harvesting affected scenic value. A national forest is given an annual harvest target. The question is how best to meet that target: one very large clear cut, several modest clear cuts, many very small clear cuts, or selectively removing trees and not clear-cutting. It is important to understand that clear-cuts can be desirable because they create habitat that is important to wildlife that we value, like deer.
The study found that the most scenic views were those without any visibly-harvested areas. Scenic value took a big hit when they harvested 3 percent of the visible forest over a 25 year period. The next 3 percent further reduced scenic value, but not as much as that first 3 percent. Each additional increment of harvest intensity further reduces scenic value, until the point where 15 percent of the forest has been harvested—that was the sustainable-yield threshold.
As expected, large clear cuts reduce scenic quality, but the smallest clear cuts were almost as bad. It seems that 10 to 14 acres were the best sized openings for a given intensity of harvesting.
In another study, you examined residents’ perceptions of scenic quality in a town in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, finding that “more than half of the variation in scenic perceptions can be explained by spatial landscape metrics.” What does this mean?
Relatively simple landscape metrics of intrinsic attributes typically explain about half of our scenic perception. The presence of water almost always enhances scenic value. And natural-appearing areas, sometimes called “green space,” are generally preferred. People seem to prefer the interplay of land cover types—an open pasture bounded by a forested hill or a residential development integrated with a system of open spaces. This interplay is measured as edge density. Much of the variation in scenic value unexplained appears to be related to more social or personal factors.
The Cape Cod studies are interesting because they considered landscape perceptions of local residents over 20 years. One of the key findings was that though there were significant changes in the landscape and the population during this period, their perceptions of what made a scenic or not so scenic landscape remained pretty stable.
You have also said “it’s time to renew investigations of the link between visual landscape perceptions and our sense of well-being.” Where is this research today and where would you like it to go?
The visible landscape is linked to our perceptions of how well we think things are going. Landscape is the stage upon which we act out our lives. How our landscape looks informs us about what is appropriate to do in a particular place and time. For instance a street littered with trash and graffiti on the buildings might be considered as unsafe. When the trash and graffiti are removed and maybe some street plants are introduced, it is perceived as a place that is safer and being cared for.
Landscape also informs us of what is reasonably possible in the future. This is why the community visioning work of many landscape architecture firms and university programs is so important. Examples of organizations involved in this work are the Orton Family Foundation, the Dunn Foundation, and Scenic America.
My professional practice is primarily focused on scenic impact assessment, particularly of renewable energy projects. Here in New England, many people are upset by the introduction of commercial renewable energy projects into the rural landscape. But global climate change is going to have significant effects on this landscape, and many residents see commercial renewable energy projects as a positive change. All we really know right now is that they are often very visible.
It would be very helpful to decision makers if there was more scientific research about the general contribution of scenery or visual surroundings to the experience of all sorts of activities—commuting to work, casually looking out a window, as well as recreation activities like kayaking, hiking, or camping.
Anya Sirota, an artist, was perusing Bon Marche, a famous bookstore in Paris, and discovered a whole section on Detroit, filled with mostly “ruin porn” books. In its decline, Detroit, she said, is one of the most “imagined cities in the world.” And it’s now connected with stories of great loss and lament — it went from a city of 2 million to 680,000.
The story is either “this terrible neglect, or perhaps a DIY gestalt — young, talented, non-conventional types can come here and make a new life, create an alternative lifestyle.” To appeal to that DIY audience, Detroit has also become the “scenic backdrop for the marketing of the authenticity of products.”
As Sirota explained at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, she decided to go to the city and see for herself. She ended up partnering with some local African American designers, artists, and activists to write a new story. Sirota calls what she eventually helped create “generative cultural infrastructure.” She believes it’s different from the usual “placemaking” experiences, which have become too “institutionalized” for her tastes.
Sirota called for new thinking about Detroit. Instead of treating Detroit as a “shrinking city,” how about relabeling it a “shifting city?” From the perspective of the African American community who have lived there for decades, the city hasn’t really shrunk — it has expanded.
She also questioned whether the city is really post-industrial. The massive, often illegal, process of recycling Detroit’s abandoned buildings is part of an international industrial economy. “As building development has boomed in China, the rate of deconstruction in Detroit has also increased. It’s a city fully embedded in industrial processes. Those scrappy, metals workers are just not considered part of the formal economy.”
But she really got to work when she saw that remnants of Motown were on the verge of being destroyed for good. Detroit’s city government had initiated a blight remediation program with the goal of tearing down abandoned, decrepit houses. They partnered with Data Driven Detroit and Loveland Technologies to create Motor City Mapping, a website and app that enabled surveyors to examine thousands of damaged empty homes that need to be dealt with. “The survey looked at all structures in the landscape. After 15 minutes of training, surveyors post photos and evaluate the properties.” But it turns out some famous African American clubs where Motown started were added to the list for demolition. Sirota said these technology-enabled surveyors had no clue about the history of many of the places they were evaluating. “That’s not fair.”
Sirota eventually met up with Bryce Detroit, a local record producer, who “uses entertainment arts to create media that project African American identity.” Through his work, he has gotten involved with the climate justice and social justice movements, but he doesn’t call himself an activist. “The community calls me an activist though.”
Together, Detroit and Sirota and many others came together to form the O.N.E. Mile project in Detroit’s North End, which is home to legendary musical venues like Phelps’ Lounge along the Oakland Avenue artery in Paradise Valley. What was once the hub of a “30-year Motown music economy” had become derelict, targeted for demolition. For Detroit and Sirota, this was incredibly sad. “There was no marker of the extraordinary history of the music here that impacted the world.” Instead, “someone used an app for 15 minutes and decided this place didn’t fit into the vision of the new city.”
Detroit, Sirota, and many others started to revitalize some spaces along a one mile stretch of Oakland Avenue. A part of the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, a collection of artists, industrial designers, and architects, they created a vision for a new arts corridor that will undo the blight. New gardens appeared in empty lots. Buildings were turned into makeshift galleries and meeting spaces. “We rehabilitated a garage, really without permission.” There, they launched the Mothership, a mobile DJ unit, which comes with smoke machines (see above).
And for the grand opening of the rehabilitated space, 12 original members of Parliament Funkadelic, the legendary funk band who created the original “Holy Mothership” in the 70s, played a free concert. Some 700 people from the neighborhood turned up.
This collective is constantly “prototyping, programming,” creating new “experimental music and catalyzing the development of new organizations.” They branded the Mothership, with local artists creating t-shirts and earrings. They created a new magazine. As Detroit explained, “we wanted it to be beautiful all the way, with the highest possible production values.” There are pop-up shops were no money is exchanged; it’s all barter. There’s now a North End Urban Expressions Art Festival to showcase local talent.
Sirota said this all constitutes a new model for community revitalization. In the usual placemaking process, community groups, she said, have to work with foundation’s funding cycles. But the problem is they can’t “create complex cultural products in 18 months. Foundations really need to revisit that.” With their bottom-up approach, “there was true collaboration across disciplines. The cultural products were produced locally — not overlaid. This makes it sustainable and self-generating.”
The default American landscape before game-changing landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden & Associates (OvS) came along was a great expanse of lawn, really an ecological wasteland, with perhaps a fringe of flowers. But all of that changed with James van Sweden and Wolgang Oehme’s New American Garden style, which burst onto the scene in the early 1960s. A new exhibition at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C. honors this still-evolving approach inspired by Native American landscapes. As NBM explains, “the New American Garden is characterized by large swaths of grasses and fields of perennials.” The style re-creates the seasonal splendor of the American meadow while “celebrating its inherent ecological, sustainable, aesthetic, and ornamental values.” Eric Groft, FASLA, a principal at OvS, one of the firm’s second generation leaders, added that this approach was “sustainable before it was even called that.”
When it first appeared, the New American Garden was a departure from landscape architect Dan Kiley’s formal geometric Modernism. As Groft explained, “Oeme and van Sweden wanted to overwhelm you with horticulture, movement, and color.” van Sweden once told him, “all color is good.”
Linda Jewell, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley and fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., said the exhibition “shows that the world needs color and life more than lawns. It also shows us who they were personally. It’s exhilarating.”
The exhibition, which is the largest monographic landscape architecture one in NBM’s history, takes visitors from their early residential landscapes to their more ambitious civic works. We see 28 of OvS’s residential and civic projects, explained with 50 fantastic large-scale photographs, original plans and drawings, and the historic artworks that played an important role in their development. Three generations of OvS landscape architects’ work are included. Given OvS designed more than 1,000 landscapes since 1975, it’s clear how much work went into curation.
Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which partnered with NBM to organize and design the exhibition, pointed out some of their most significant works, focusing first on the now-famous residential landscape, the Rosenberg Residence in Water Mill, New York, which “galvanized the world of landscape architecture, put OvS on the map, and made the Rosenbergs famous.”
Birnbaum then asked us to focus on the Federal Reserve Board Garden in Washington, D.C., which was a “hinge point” that showed how the New American Garden aesthetic could be scaled up in a civic setting.
Groft explained how the New American Garden style continues to evolve. “It has been changing since its inception. Landscapes are ephemeral, always evolving.” As an example, he mentioned the Slifka Beach House in Sagaponack, New York, which is the project nearest and dearest to him, as he has guided its growth and change for decades. “It’s my life’s work, in a way. It’s the garden I’ve learned the most from over the years.”
Another way the New American Garden style is evolving: OvS is always discovering and applying new plants, even from places as far as South Africa.
But for Groft, this evolution hasn’t been spurred by our shifting climate. “Climate change doesn’t really change anything for us. We’ve always taken out lawns and planted perennials that require very little maintenance. Oehme and van Sweden were always deeply focused on sustainability and managing water using perennials.”
And some 9 of 21 of OvS’s gardens featured in Oehme, van Sweden, and Susan Rademacher’s important book, Bold Romantic Gardens, have already disappeared. Birnbaum explained that this is the 25th anniversary of the book, which was “revolutionary and completely changed how landscape architects used plants.”
He wants to see many of OvS’s landscapes added to the National Register of Historic Places and documented through the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS). “We need a real strategy for keeping these places around. This exhibition will build awareness, but we need to include owners and use tools, like easements, to protect these landscapes.”
Frank Gehry Agreed to Make Over the L.A. River — With One Big Condition– The Los Angeles Times, 8/9/15
“Frank Gehry and the Los Angeles River: It’s a combination that makes zero sense (if you’re looking strictly at Gehry’s resume) and follows a natural logic (if you think about the interest the architect’s work has long shown in L.A.’s linear infrastructure and its overlooked, harder-to-love corners).”
Frank Gehry, Not a Landscape Architect, Will Help Re-Work L.A. River. Why?– The Los Angeles Times, 8/11/15
“While Frank Gehry, who will draft the master plan for the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River, is certainly one of the most talented and revolutionary architects of our time, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s comparison of him to the greatest landscape architect in North America — and yes, this is a separate credentialed profession — is nearsighted.”
Into the Current–The Architect’s Newspaper, 8/12/15
“News that Gehry Partners is at work on a new master plan of the Los Angeles River took Angelenos by surprise late last week. While some had heard rumors for weeks, others were caught off guard by the somewhat strange combination.”