How the National Park Service Should Evolve

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument / Conservation Alliance
San Gabriel Mountains National Monument / Conservation Alliance

As the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial, it’s time to look ahead and think about how America’s national parks should evolve over the next 100 years. A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) argues that the NPS will need to become far more inclusive to meet the needs of the mostly urban, majority-minority country we’ll have by 2043. The NPS will also need to identify areas for conservation amid the rapidly-sprawling cities of Western states before it’s too late. Already many poorer Latino and African American communities out west have been under-represented among national parks and have none nearby to enjoy. The key message of the report: put national parks closer to diverse, urban populations, and then further remove barriers preventing these populations from enjoying these places.

A recent poll conducted for CAP found that “77 percent of Americans believe the United States benefits a great deal or a fair amount from national parks. Furthermore, 55 percent of voters believe they personally benefit a great deal or a fair amount from the country’s parks and public lands.” Research from Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, confirms the enormous value of the parks: they are estimated to be worth some $92 billion to the American people.

But the reality is national parks benefit some more than others. The National Park Service is still dealing with the legacy of Jim Crow-era laws that enforced segregation in many parks. “In some cases, these laws made parks entirely off limits to African Americans.” While everyone today, by law, has equal access to national parks, “the majority of visitors remain white, aging, and fairly affluent.” And, as has been noted, 80 percent of NPS employees are white.

CAP’s polling found that 55 percent of all respondents to their survey had visited a national park, monument, or other area in the past three years. But if results are broken out by race, it looks a bit different: 59 percent of whites have visited, while 47 percent of Hispanic respondents, and only 32 percent of African Americans said the same thing. And NPS’s own 2009 survey apparently showed similar disparities: 78 percent of park visitors were white, while only 9 percent were Hispanic, and 7 percent, African American.

The report also finds there are differences in visitation among different income groups. “Only 39 percent of Americans with incomes below $40,000 reported visiting the National Park system in the last three years.” In comparison: 59 percent of those who made between $40,000 and $75,000 visited, as well as 66 percent of those who made more than $75,000.

While the NPS is now designating more places diverse populations want to go to, there is still more to do. Only 112 of the 460 designated units of the NPS, or 24.3 percent, have a focus on diverse groups. This is not thinking ahead to meet the needs of a mostly-minority country.

Recent steps — like creating the Stonewall Inn National Monument in New York City, which preserves the site of the Stonewall riots that started the LGBT rights movement, and the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, which honors an important Latino civil rights activist — are steps in the right direction, but the report argues more of these protected places need to be created. This is because “parks aimed at preserving traditionally underrepresented histories and stories in fact attract higher visitation rates than the national average from groups that they aim to honor.” For example, some 37 percent of visitors to the Nicodemus National Historic Site, a park that preserves a western town established by African Americans, are themselves African American, in comparison with around 9 percent of visitors, on average, for other parks.

The report also makes the case for preserving natural area in the West, where development “disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities.” Poorer and minority-heavy communities are typically more developed than average, which means these groups grow up in areas with fewer natural resources — and national parks and monuments.

The report argues these communities need both more small neighborhood parks and more preserved large natural areas. “Congress, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the president should create and enhance public lands in accessible places — so-called frontcountry recreation areas. Frontcountry areas offer close-to-home natural settings and outdoor experiences, which allow people to experience nature without needing to travel to a far-off destination. Emphasis should be placed on accessible frontcountry parks near communities of color, low-income communities, and urban areas.”

A prime example of what NPS needs more of: the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, which President Obama designated in 2014 and is just a 90-minute drive for the 15 million-strong, diverse, urban population of Los Angeles.

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

Rail Deck Park / City of Toronto, via The Architect’s Newspaper

Working to Make Public Space for Everyone in BaltimoreThe Baltimore Sun, 8/1/16
“For writer D. Watkins, it’s a sense of exclusion from what he called the ‘new’ Baltimore. For student activist Diamond Sampson, it’s a feeling of being unwelcome around the Inner Harbor.”

Will Replacing Thirsty Lawns with Drought-Tolerant Plants Make L.A. Hotter?  – The Los Angeles Times, 8/2/16
“Last summer, a revolution occurred in Los Angeles landscaping: Across the city, tens of thousands of homeowners tore up their water-thirsty lawns and replaced them with gravel, turf, decomposed granite and a wide range of drought-tolerant plants at a rate never seen before.”

How Noted Landscape Architect Jim Burnett Counters Dallas’ Concrete Jungle The Dallas Morning News, 8/2/16
“The 55-year-old is best known worldwide as the landscape architect of Klyde Warren Park. But he’s also created visions of greenery throughout Uptown and the Arts District and was part of the team that produced the outdoor master plan for Parkland Memorial Hospital.”

Why Landscape Architects Are the Urban Designers of TomorrowCurbed, 8/4/16
“For landscape architects, the ground has shifted in serious ways over the last few decades. Earlier this summer in Philadelphia, at a mid-June summit organized by the Landscape Architecture Foundation, members of the profession looked back at the changes the last half-century has brought to their profession.”

City of Toronto to Build 21-Acre Park Over Downtown Railroad Tracks The Architect’s Newspaper, 8/8/16
“Toronto Mayor John Tory has announced plans to protect 21 acres of downtown real estate for the future Rail Deck Park.”

Ben Bradlee’s Mausoleum Sets Off a Gossip-Laden SquabbleThe New York Times, 8/11/16
“It lacked the pageantry of the funeral nearly a year before, but when the body of Benjamin C. Bradlee, the longtime editor of The Washington Post, was re-interred in a Georgetown cemetery here last October, it had an air of permanence.”

A New Look at the Trail Blazing David Williston

David A. Williston / TCLF
David A. Williston / TCLF

David August Williston
is a name little known today, even in the world of landscape architecture. But according to Dr. Douglas Williams, Student ASLA, Ph.D graduate from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, he is one of the trail blazers of the field. One of the first African American landscape architects, Williston designed some of the major campuses of historically African American colleges like Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute and Howard University in Washington, D.C. In his lifetime, he never experienced full integration, having passed away in 1962 at the age of 94, but managed to accomplish a lasting legacy of built work.

In a talk at Howard University’s School of Architecture, Williams wondered why Williston is so little celebrated. In part, he blames the lack of diversity in core landscape architecture texts, like the Landscape of Man, published in 1970, and Landscape Design, in 2001. “Where are the black people in these texts?”

He also pointed to the paucity of published books on African American cultural landscapes. Celebrated African American landscape architect Walter Hood, ASLA, published a book of his own work, but that was back in 1997. (Apparently, he is at work on a second book on his “hybrid landscapes”). The 2004 book African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945, an overview of some 100 designers, includes only 5-6 landscape architects. Williams bemoaned that mainstream attention to these designers only gets paid in a cursory fashion during Black History Month.

Williams highlighted a few examples of what he considers to be excellent African American scholarship on landscape: from J.B. Jackson’s The Necessity of Ruins and Other Topics, which states that “the garden landscapes of blacks are some of the least known and richest,” to We Shall Independent Be: African American Place-Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States, a compendium edited by Angel David Nieves and Leslie M. Alexander, which explores the stories of African American communities displaced by Frederick Law Olmsted in the creation of Central Park.

Referring to Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that geniuses are less isolated phenomena than important nodes in deep and rich social networks, Williams argued that Williston also collaborated widely. He tried to imagine Williston’s African American contemporaries, many of whom remain unknown. He tried to imagine how Williston was able to create an entirely African American system to achieve his landscape designs in the segregated deep South. And he tried to imagine how Williston, without access to white-owned nurseries, could have sought out native plants in the woods and cultivated them on his own. (Williston was one of the first African Americans to earn a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Cornell University; there, his love of plants grew into a considerable expertise on plant propagation and cultivation.)

Williston taught horticulture to African American college students while also serving as a campus landscape architect for numerous historically black colleges. He spent 20 years at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, where he also worked with African American architect Robert R. Taylor to lay out the physical campus. According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, he then settled in Washington, D.C. at the onset of the Great Depression, where he started his own firm. He designed the expansion of Howard University, and numerous other colleges, working well into his early 90s.

Williams’ hope is to completely digitize Williston’s archives and make them accessible online for future researchers, using them as a basis to create 3-D models of now-lost planting schemes, so more people can experience a Williston landscape.

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

Photograph by Simon Norfolk / Institute for the New Yorker

Are Seawalls the Best Answer to Rising Sea Levels – or is Retreat a Better Option? The Guardian, 7/18/16
“The extraordinary pictures of subsumed gardens and a swimming pool wrenched from the ground by the giant waves that battered Sydney’s northern beaches last month have revived debate about seawalls and the impact of human attempts to keep the rising ocean from our doors.”

Cleveland’s Great New Public Spaces Helped Make RNC 2016 a Success The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 7/22/16
“The Republican National Convention, where Trump gave his acceptance speech Thursday night, was a great, crashing success for its host city – and especially for the revitalized public spaces that framed the event and made it possible.”

The Secret Behind the Floral Mural of Fiddler’s Green’s Living Walls The Denver Post, 7/22/16
“Live music isn’t the only animate attraction at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre in Greenwood Village. The concert venue, owned and operated by the Museum of Outdoor Arts (MOA), also boasts North America’s largest living walls. Picture vast, lush gardens with a total of 25,000 plants tipped on their sides, an aerial Eden.”

Changing Skyline: New Dilworth Park is Busy with Everything but Protests, 7/22/16
“You only have to spend a few minutes in Dilworth Park to see what a people magnet it has become since the Center City District completed a dramatic, $55 million makeover two years ago. Besides regular attractions, like the cafe and sparkling fountain, there is something special going on 186 days a year – that’s every other day – ranging from concerts and farmers’ markets to bocce tournaments and Lupus Awareness booths.”

What It Takes to Clean the GangesThe New Yorker, 7/25/16
“The Ganges River begins in the Himalayas, roughly three hundred miles north of Delhi and five miles south of India’s border with Tibet, where it emerges from an ice cave called Gaumukh (the Cow’s Mouth) and is known as the Bhagirathi.”

Obama Chooses Historic Jackson Park as Library Site Chicago Tribune, 7/27/16
“Rejecting a rough-edged urban site for what could be a showcase near the lakefront, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have selected Chicago’s historic Jackson Park as the site of his presidential library, sources said Wednesday.”

The Obama Library Is Going in Jackson Park – What That Means – The Huffington Post, 7/28/16
“The last major remaining question about the Obama Presidential Library—which Frederick Law Olmsted-Calvert Vaux-designed park would become the building site for the facility—was answered yesterday when news leaked out that the First Couple had decided on Jackson over Washington Park. This is a good-news/bad-news result.”

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

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Conservation: Geniuses of Place, 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 ForestChicago 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.”

Imagine if the 2 Freeway Ended in a Brilliantly Colored, Eco-Smart ParkThe Los Angeles Times, 7/11/16
“There are two ways you can look at the long spur of the 2 Freeway as it runs south from the 5 Freeway and descends into Silver Lake and Echo Park.”

20th Anniversary of the Birmingham Master Plan: City Planners Created an Industry Standard Planetizen, 7/13/16
“It has been 20 years since the city of Birmingham, Michigan approved the Birmingham 2016 Master Plan. Robert J. Gibbs, one of the planners on a team that included Andrés Duany, describes the decisions and process that contributed to the plan.”

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.”

Central Park, Bucolic but Aging, Is in a Quest for $300 Million The New York Times, 7/13/16
“Belvedere Castle in Central Park looks indestructible, a fortress of stone presiding over the Great Lawn. But the 144-year-old-building leaks like a sieve.”

University Landscapes Teach, Too

University of Virginia campus / Perfect Soccer Recruit
University of Virginia campus / Perfect Soccer Recruit

“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).

Vegetable garden at Monticello / UVA Green Dining
Vegetable garden at Monticello / UVA Green Dining

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 Yard / Harvard Magazine
Harvard Yard / Harvard Magazine

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.”

Original Harvard Yard / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Original Harvard Yard / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

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.

West point campus / West
West point campus / West

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.”

Vassar College Commencement / Webner House blog
Vassar College Commencement / Webner House blog

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.”

Sarah P. Duke Gardens / Panorama Point
Sarah P. Duke Gardens / Panorama Point

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.”

Duke Pond / Mark Hough
Duke Pond / Mark Hough

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.

Interview with Thaisa Way on 10 Parks That Changed America

Thaisa Way, ASLA / Thaisa Way
Thaisa Way, ASLA / Thaisa Way

Thaisa Way, ASLA, is associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and author of The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design.

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.

Ogelthorpe plan of Savannah, Georgia / Wikipedia
Ogelthorpe plan of Savannah, Georgia / Wikipedia

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.

Savannah Square, Savannah, Georgia /
Savannah Square, Savannah, Georgia /

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.

ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lurie Garden, Chicago / Mark Tomaras
ASLA 2008 Professional General Design Honor Award. Lurie Garden, Chicago / Mark Tomaras

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.

You must have lobbied for Gas Works Park given you teach landscape architecture at the University of Washington and your recent book, The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design. What was your argument for including Gas Works? Did you have to persuade people?

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.

Gas Works Park / Richard Haag Associates
Gas Works Park / Richard Haag Associates

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.

Freeway Park, Seattle / Thaisa Way
Freeway Park, Seattle / Thaisa Way

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.

Dueling Visions for Pershing Park

Pershing Park, Washington, DC / Photograph © Brian K. Thomson, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Pershing Park, Washington, DC / Photograph © Volkmar Wentzel, undated, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission
Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission

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.

Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission
Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission

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.

Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission
Weight of Sacrifice / WWI Memorial Centennial Commission

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.

Pershing Park, Washington, DC / Photograph © Brian K. Thomson, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Pershing Park, Washington, DC / Photograph © Brian K. Thomson, 2015, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

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.”

Pershing Park / TCLF
Pershing Park / TCLF

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.

D.C. Plans for Preservation Amid Population Explosion

O Street Market, before redevelopment / Wikipedia
O Street Market, before / Wikipedia
O Street Market, rendering of post-redevelopment / City Market at O
O Street Market, after / City Market at O

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.

Get a Closer Look at Houston’s Green Makeover

ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston. SWA Group / Tom Fox
ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou Promenade, Houston. SWA Group / Tom Fox

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.

ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Awards. Rice University Brochstein Pavilion by Office of James Burnett / Paul Hester
ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Awards. Rice University Brochstein Pavilion by Office of James Burnett / Paul Hester

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.

Discovery Green in Houston / H-town Visually Blog
Discovery Green in Houston / H-town Visually Blog

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.

The Leading with Landscape II conference on March 11 is $250 for professionals, providing 6.5 LA CES professional development hours, and $95 for students. What’s Out There Weekend tours on March 12-13, which run 1-2 hours, are all free, but TCLF asks attendees to first register online.

Learn more about Houston’s green transformation in Birnbaum’s blog and the Texas Monthly.