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.”
A new master plan for Old Town, the historic center of Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles from Washington, D.C. which has been in the works for more than five years, is now well underway, as the city opens bidding on the plan’s flood mitigation improvements. The plan will transform one of the last “undeveloped” major urban waterfronts in the D.C. area. The $120 million project, designed by landscape architecture firm OLIN, will add 5.5 acres of public open space; develop a new signature plaza at the foot of King Street, the main thoroughfare through Old town; expand the marina; create walkable connections for the length of the waterfront; and incorporate flood mitigation measures. Three new mixed-use developments have also been proposed along the waterfront, including a plan to transform Robinson Terminal North. These plans come for approval by the local planning commission and city council in September.
Phase one of the project, which will not be completed until at least 2026, will focus on core utility, roadway, and other infrastructure construction required to support the subsequent street-level improvements, followed by attention to the flood mitigation elements, one of the more controversial elements of the project, according to The Alexandria Times. At a recent talk at the National Building Museum, “Alexandria’s New Front Door: Implementing the Waterfront Plan,” it became clear that the discussion on flood mitigation illuminates the key challenge in re-envisioning Alexandria’s waterfront: how to maintain the character of one of the U.S.’s most historic cities while protecting this architectural treasure-chest from the threat of increased flooding.
Old Town Alexandria was hit hard during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. According toThe Washington Post, flooding from the Potomac River swamped the historic Torpedo Factory and many areas around King Street. Along Alexandria’s waterfront, streets were navigated by canoe and kayak, as water levels reached nearly 9 feet above sea level. More recent storms, such as Hurricane Irene in 2011, were also devastating. Long-term, Alexandria’s Potomac waterfront will experience sea level rises of more than 2.3 to 5.2 feet by 2100 — according to the Waterfront Small Area Plan — and certain areas of the city now flood at least once a month, so OLIN made flood mitigation a high priority in the master plan.
Based on a 2010 flood mitigation study commissioned by the Alexandria city government, OLIN proposed a comprehensive plan that balances mitigation, cost, and maintaining views. The waterfront plan will protect against nuisance flooding at 6 feet higher than sea level through drainage improvements, a combined sea wall and pedestrian walkway, and the use of green infrastructure techniques such as swales and rain gardens. Not only will this protect Old Town against the majority of flooding, this level of protection was found to be the most cost-effective and least visually intrusive for the majority of flooding events, according to a 107-slide presentation by OLIN.
However, the historic character of the city may still be at risk during major storms. “The level was set at 6 feet so it would not destroy the character of the viewshed or the city’s historic character, but this flood mitigation will be overtopped eventually,” said Tony Gammon, acting deputy director of the department of project implementation for Alexandria, at the National Building Museum. “It won’t be a surprise to us.”
Other elements of the waterfront project, which were decided based on extensive community input, strike a balance between preserving character and improving function quite well. According to the small area plan, “throughout the planning process, Alexandrians asked for more ‘things to do’ on the waterfront.” Once a working waterfront bustling with commercial activity, Old Town’s current attractions are now primarily located in-land. The new plan aims to bring a high level of activity back to the waterfront in a new form. A public boardwalk along the water’s edge will improve access to the river, while new public spaces, including a large public park called Fitzgerald Square, will bring people to parts of Old Town that were formerly industry-dominated. Old buildings will be memorialized, views to the river from King Street will be opened up, and three derelict sites will get new mixed-use development.
According to Robert M. Kerns, development division chief for Alexandria, who spoke on the National Building Museum panel, the crowning achievement of the project has been its ability “to balance new development with the city’s historic patterns.” Preserving historic character was not only a consideration for the flood mitigation strategies, but also for the city’s new promenades and public spaces. For example, the proposed Prince Street promenade, which will end at riverfront, will have a series of formal gardens that complement the scale of the surrounding structures. “Ensuring an historic scale was important to city identity, as was following the pattern of existing buildings,” Kerns said about the proposed promenade.
But do the character-conscious flood mitigation strategies go far enough to protect Old Town from the next super storm? While Alexandria is unique due to historic character, the careful approach to flood mitigation provides a contrast to cities like New York City and Boston, which have recently held design competitions that have yielded ambitious waterfront resiliency plans in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The projects that have come out of Living with Water in Boston and Rebuild by Design in NYC will be designed to withstand catastrophic storm events, far more than a 6 foot nuisance flood. While New York and Boston are bigger cities, and arguably at greater risk from sea level rise than Old Town, the effort in Old Town raises questions about the depth of resilience being planned and designed.
After years of debate over the Old Town waterfront, there is now some consensus on how to upgrade this historic place with new parks, better access to the waterfront, and improved flood mitigation. However, the project, which will be in the works for the next decade, ultimately proves just how much “new” residents of one of the country’s oldest cities are willing to accept. Continued flooding may be the price.
On a rainy afternoon, surrounded by musicians, dancers, and dignitaries, artist Yoko Ono spoke at an “earth healing” ceremony, celebrating the dedication of the site of what will be her only permanent installation in the Americas, Sky Landing. The installation will be in Chicago’s Jackson Park, on the Wooded Island, which is currently undergoing extensive restoration work, including the reconstruction of natural areas and the creation of a new pavilion.
Sky Landing will be located on a site adjacent to the Osaka Garden in Frederick Law Olmsted’s bucolic park. The site is historically significant, as it is the location of the original Phoenix Pavilion, which was built in 1893 as a part of the World’s Fair Columbian Exposition to promote American understanding of Japanese culture and as a means to unite the East and West. The original pavilion burned to the ground in 1946.
Ono responds to this history. She explained her inspiration for the piece to Americans for the Arts’ Nora Halpern: “I want the sky to land here, to cool it, to make it well again.”
Though the actual form of Sky Landing, which is expected to open in 2016, hasn’t been revealed, the land has been formed in anticipation of the installation. Two crescent shaped mounds of earth curve into each other, creating between them a space for sky, framed by land.
The healing ceremony was organized by Robert W. Karr, Jr., president of Project 120 Chicago, which is leading the restoration effort in Jackson Park. Karr spoke of the Japanese concept of kanreki, or the idea that rebirth happens every 60 years. In 2013, exactly 120 years after the original dedication of the Phoenix Pavilion for the 1893 World’s Fair, 120 Japanese cherry trees were planted. In a continuation of this theme, Sky Landing asks that peace and understanding be reborn.
Toshiyuki Iwado, Consul General of Japan at Chicago, said the site and Ono’s new piece represent a legacy of unity between American and Japanese cultures. Here, people will be able to experience the “richness of nature and the harmony of culture and peace.”
Ono spoke of feeling Chicago’s “incredible, incredible intense opening of the heart.” She has long felt a deep connection to Chicago, saying in an interview with Halpern that “Chicago makes me nostalgic about way, way back when I was a little girl in the 1930’s. I don’t really know why.”
Derek R. B. Douglas, vice president for civic engagement, University of Chicago, spoke of the importance of parks and green space in providing community members both access to nature and opportunities for solitude. Describing Sky Landing as “one more way for local residents to connect to the park,” he reminded us of the importance of the park as a place for people to gather, engage with the natural world, and find respite.
At the ceremony, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also took the opportunity to unveil a public art initiative, Public Art Chicago: 50 for 50, which will create a public art installation in each of the city’s 50 wards, because “public art enriches the experience of public space.”
Meanwhile, no word yet from the Obamas and Chicago city government as to whether they will take a piece of Jackson Park or nearby Washington Park for the $500-million Obama presidential library. In May, word leaked from the Obama library foundation that one of these two Olmsted-designed historic parks will be the future site, to the dismay of historic preservation and park advocates.
This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, a recent graduate of Illinois Institute of Technology’s Master of Landscape Architecture program, former ASLA Communications Intern, and a proud Chicagoan.
“What gives you hope that a sustainable future is possible?” In Designed for the Future: 80 Practical Ideas for a Sustainable World, Jared Green — the same Green who edits this blog, and, full disclosure, was my boss when I was a communications intern at ASLA — offers 80 thought-provoking and frequently inspiring answers to this question from landscape architects, urban planners, architects, journalists, artists, and environmental leaders in the U.S. and beyond. The book’s tone is highly conversational and reflects the voices of the book’s contributors. Each passage is the result of an interview with Green, who serves largely as curator for this reading experience.
To those in the field, the names are like a who’s who of respected leaders in these professions. But while professionals will certainly enjoy it, this book is aimed squarely at the public, as it’s as scrubbed-free of design jargon as possible and offered in bite-size pieces easy to pick up for a few minutes at a time or read entirely through on a weekend afternoon.
It’s largely successful in this aspect, capturing the essence of the ideas at the core of each real world example without losing the reader in technical terms and excess detail. However, in a few cases, the description is so sparse as to leave uncertain exactly what the project is about.
Some of the projects feature new technologies applied in innovative ways. Lighting designer Leni Schwendinger, now with Arup, is inspired by Illuminate, a three-year research program in six European countries showing the way to the future of light-emitting diode (LED) lighting in public spaces. The study examined not only at energy savings and carbon reductions, but also the quality of light in terms of brightness, color temperature, and color rendition (whether the object illuminated looks true to life). It’s the artificial nature of these latter qualities that tend to sway many designers away from LEDs, despite their energy savings, but this study shows they are being improved, and LEDs may soon be able to use “intelligent controls to create malleable lighting” in our parks, plazas, and museums.
Jonsara Ruth, a professor at The New School / Parsons, discusses Mushroom Board from the firm Ecovative, a product that uses mycelium, the “roots” of mushrooms, to literally grow an organic Styrofoam replacement. Styrofoam is an incredibly polluting material, but Mushroom Board, a cutting-edge use of bioengineered materials that can be grown to almost any shape and size, is completely biodegradable. Imagine appliances coming packed in Mushroom Board or homes insulated with mushroom in the walls instead of spray-in foam.
Many projects feature materials and infrastructures from the past that have been given new life to serve contemporary needs. Landscape architect Thomas Woltz, FASLA, Nelson Byrd Woltz, describes how Braddock, Pennsylvania, is in the process of transforming much of its abandoned and toxic industrial lands, re-envisioning them as a place for urban farming and healthy community initiatives.
And Peter Harnik, Hon. ASLA, director, Center for City Park Excellence, Trust for Public Land, describes how Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis is a railway that has been converted into one of the most successful trails for cyclists and pedestrians. Built in a trench to not interfere with auto traffic, it’s a delight for its users who can go for long stretches without having to negotiate intersections and vehicle conflicts.
One overarching theme is the need to further connect social, environmental, aesthetic, and economic benefits that have been considered for too long in isolation. For decades, we’ve known, in theory, that achieving quadruple-bottom line benefits is essential for sustainability. These existing projects show how multiple benefits can be achieved in the real world, and the positive impact they can have on communities and the environment.
Green offers a lovely quote in his introduction from science fiction writer William Gibson: “The future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed.” Environmental advocacy and action can so easily just focus on the negative or emphasize only the compromise and sacrifice necessary for “saving the planet.” The examples in Designed for the Future show that not only is our future not all doom and gloom, but there’s plenty to be excited about here and now. The future is here. Now let’s start spreading today’s successes around as widely as possible.
Hermann Park’s Japanese Garden Serves As City Oasis– The Houston Chronicle, 4/17/15
“Hermann Park’s Japanese Garden is a place where families flock to watch koi school in murky ponds, where couples rest under the trellis covered in leafy wisteria and where Houstonians steal away for quiet time in a natural setting.”
How the Drought Will Reshape Californian Landscape Architecture – Curbed, 4/22/15 “California is dealing with a resource crisis that’s asking a West Coast accustomed to expansive growth and endless possibility to go against character and make do with less. The last time going dry has caused this much consternation was during Prohibition. Curbed spoke with four leading landscape architects to find out how their profession needs to adapt to a challenge with the potential to reshape the industry.”
‘The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley’ Review– The Wall Street Journal, 4/22/15
“’The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley,’ an exhibition at the Center for Architecture, shows how modern landscapes often make a better case for modernism than the architecture itself.”
Studio Octopi Begins Crowdfunding Campaign for a Lido on London’s River Thames– Arch Daily, 4/23/15
“London’s central waterway, the River Thames, has been a site of enormous interest from architects and urbanists in previous years. From a controversial garden bridge to discussions about how to appropriate what has been described as one of the city’s largest untapped public spaces, London-based practice Studio Octopi have now launched a Kickstarter campaign to help to realize their dream of creating ‘a new, natural, beautiful lido’ on its banks.”
Group Rallies to Save Cherished Spot at Children’s Hospital – The Boston Globe, 4/27/15
“Just ahead of a wrecking ball, a contingent of parents and caregivers want the city to bestow protective landmark status on Prouty Garden, a half-acre splash of green at the heart of Boston Children’s Hospital. It may be their last hope for preserving the emerald retreat.”
Mexican landscape architect, architect, and urban designer Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, who recently spoke at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is recognized for his built works that are fueled by a deep concern for the cities of his native Mexico. GSD landscape architecture department chair Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, introduced Schjetnan as one of today’s foremost landscape architects, and said the new appreciation of landscape architecture in Mexico can be greatly attributed to the efforts of Schjetnan and his firm, Grupo de Diseño Urbano.
The majority of Schjetnan’s work is in Mexico and Latin America, where he has grown awareness of the field by demonstrating the many ways it serves growing urban centers, while also reaching beyond the discipline to do the work cities need. He has an unusual profile: he is Mexico’s leading landscape architect but also internationally-recognized.
Schjetnan outlined a set of principles that “establish the condition to immerse ourselves in the profession.” Along with “nature of place, collaboration, sustainability, and culture/history/precedent,” he lists “inter-disciplinarity” and the “conceptual continuum.” For an example of inter-disciplinarity, he points to innovation in the sciences, which often comes out a mix of different disciplines. “Inter-disciplinarity creates these new hybrids we are working in.” He acknowledges that no project addresses just one principle in isolation.
Schjetnan used his work at Parque Ecológico Xochimilco in Xochimilco, Mexico to talk about the nature of place. For Schjetnan, any project on a historical or natural site requires finding the “deep meaning of place,” the “starting point” from which to begin a project. “It encompasses the aesthetic, ecological, and the poetic…” This approach has particular relevance in a country with so many archeological sites. (At one point that evening Schjetnan even relates a bit of a joke: Once asked how many archeological sites Mexico had, “one of the best anthropologists” answered quite beautifully with a simple “only one; it’s called Mexico.”)
Xochimilco, one of Mexico’s historic sites, required Schjetnan to really immerse himself. It led him to discover the deep tradition of Mexico’s “chinampas,” an agricultural system based on raised plots of fertile land within the lake beds of the Valley of Mexico (see image above). Drawing on this tradition, which Schjetnan calls “the best technological invention of pre-hispanic Americas,” the new park design at Xochimilco reimagines their original use within contemporary water infrastructure, using the forms of these “marvelous islands created by man” to filter and pump water back into the lake. Schjetnan is making traditions visible and viable.
In the case of Parque Eco-Arqueológica Copalita in Huatulco, Mexico, the team, on its journey to discover the nature of place, created a new park along with an entirely new understanding of the relationship between archeology and environmental history. The archeological eco-park marries the two and no longer sees vegetation as being destructive. In practice, this new understanding has meant training the staff not to remove old growth trees from the precious pyramids.
While not removing trees may be the “right” thing to do in one scenario, in another circumstance it may be the wrong thing. Take the firm’s work in the forest of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. Schjetnan tells a fascinating story or how thinning the forest for health — yes, that means removing trees in this case — had to be done first on a nearly invisible demonstration plot in order to gain public support. Otherwise, he might once more risk being accused of cutting down trees. Schjetnan has the wisdom to let the vegetation be the agent of design.
A more recent project is his firm’s first large-scale contaminated, post-industrial site: Jardín Natura Parque Bicentenario in Ciudad de México. With a slab foundation dominating the site, the garden’s topography is entirely shaped by the bio-regions’ soil profiles. The more soil a tree needs, the higher the ground. Schjetnan excitedly walked the auditorium through a detailed longitudinal section that cuts through each of the distinct bio-regions of the garden. His garden demonstrates not only where but also how trees grow. What a novel way to refresh the role of a botanical garden in a city where not only the buildings but also the ground are rising up to the sky.
This guest post is by Lara Mehling, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design