Studio-MLA and Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Win Cooper Hewitt National Design Award

Mia Lehrer, FASLA / Studio-MLA

Studio-MLA won the 2021 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture. The firm, which has been led by Salvadorian-born landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, for 25 years, seeks to “integrate landscape architecture, urban design, and planning to create places that inspire human connection, unite communities, and restore environmental balance.” The firm’s staff of 45, based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, includes landscape architects, planners, ecologists, and botanists.

Studio-MLA staff / Studio-MLA

On winning the award, Lehrer said: “we’re indebted to our collaborators, in particular our visionary clients, non-profit partners, and design teams for their commitment to building places that create social justice and equity, and projects that tell the stories layered within places — stories of people, neighborhoods, hope and conflict, water, air, ecology, and empowerment.”

The firm’s design philosophy is focused on creating broader impact: “Through our projects, pro bono efforts, and strategic relationships, we advocate by design. For over twenty years, our role as catalyst has educated and empowered people to translate ideas into culturally-relevant and climate-appropriate places.”

In an interview with ASLA, Lehrer, who has been an advocate for climate action and restoring ecosystems, said: “I didn’t grow up in the U.S., but my parents were community activists. We all don’t have a choice but to be engaged and educated about the dire situation we’re all in.”

Studio-MLA is known for taking on highly complex large-scale landscape planning projects that involve navigating layers of government jurisdictions. They often use legacy infrastructure as an opportunity to address climate impacts, restore ecosystems, and reconnect underserved and immigrant communities. In particular, the firm has led large-scale landscape planning efforts that re-imagine outdated river infrastructure, so these systems become more ecological and accessible. The firm’s goal is to create healthier human-ecological systems at all scales.

The firm recently won a major landscape planning and design project — the River-Side Gateway Project Suite in Riverside, California, which includes a series of nine sites along seven-miles of the Santa Ana River. The project seeks to “create access to water and recreation for citizens while also designing solutions for stormwater mitigation, threatened habitat, and air quality impacts,” explained Matt Romero, ASLA, landscape designer at Studio-MLA.

Los Angeles River Downtown Design Dialogue / Studio-MLA

Another recent landscape planning project is the Upper Los Angeles Rivers & Tributaries Revitalization Plan, which proposes imaginative ways to transform the “heavily channelized waterways that meander eastward through the San Fernando Valley.” To develop the plan, Studio-MLA “mapped spatial obstacles and constraints including, but not limited to, government jurisdictions, land use, park access, pollution load, ecological habitat, water quality, flood risk, safe access, and connectivity.” This information enabled them to examine existing economic, environmental, and social impacts, and create a new equitable framework for reconnecting communities to more natural rivers and tributaries.

Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles is also an exciting large-scale effort that demonstrates the firm’s inclusive planning and design approach. A new “community-inspired” 1.1-mile-long, outdoor museum along Crenshaw Boulevard, where a new Metro line and stations will surface, will become a “living celebration of Black Los Angeles” in the “heart of the largest black community west of the Mississippi River.” Studio-MLA, along with Perkins+Will, Raw International, and Gallagher & Associates is imagining the urban and landscape design for the project, which will include community-driven public art.

Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates
Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates
Destination Crenshaw / Studio-MLA, Perkins+Will, Raw International, Gallagher & Associates

Throughout Lehrer’s projects, there is a commitment to inclusive engagement, particularly with underserved and immigrant communities. In an ASLA interview, she said that through a planning process, “you can embolden people, allow them to feel comfortable that it’s their right to communicate, not necessarily demand, but to be part of a dialogue. It’s education, creating a set of tools, and allowing people to understand they can be advocates for their own needs.”

The firm’s built community and residential projects are also characterized by a deep respect for water and native plants. A prime example is the 10-acre Vista Hermosa Natural Park in Los Angeles, which was carefully designed to capture 95 percent of the precious rainwater that falls on the site through an interconnected system of “permeable paving, green roofs, grassy meadows, vegetated swales, and a 30,000-gallon cistern that supplies irrigation.” The park was designed with native plants to educate visitors about the Southern Californian landscape.

Vista Hermosa Natural Park, Los Angeles / Studio-MLA, Tom Lamb

This commitment is further reflected in a series of op-eds Lehrer wrote for THE DIRT in 2015 How to Save Water, the Californian Way (Part 1) and (Part 2) — where she offered a series of practical recommendations, rooted in a nuanced understanding of natural systems.

“In nature, creeks and streams collect rain that falls on the mountains and hillsides. Trees and vegetation soak up the water, shade the soil, and drop leaves that decompose to become habitat, a protective layer of mulch, and eventually soil. The soil acts like a sponge, holding water for long enough periods of time for native plants to make it through the summer. You can mimic nature at home by reducing impermeable surfaces, grading to keep rainwater on site, planting climate-appropriate shade trees and plants, and adding a thick layer of mulch to conserve soil moisture.”

While often working at the scale of miles, Lehrer seems to say no site is too small to make a positive impact.

Pandemic-era Street Spaces: Parklets, Patios, and the Future of the Public Realm

Rebar’s “walket” a prototype parklet system deployed in San Francisco’s Mission district in 2009. / Rebar

By John Bela, ASLA

On a clear fall day in 2005, a group of friends and collaborators from the art collective Rebar commandeered an 8-foot-wide by 20-foot-long metered parking space in downtown San Francisco. This two-hour guerilla art installation evolved into Park(ing) Day, a global public art and design activism event that has been celebrated every year since. In 2009, Rebar and other design studios were approached by the City of San Francisco to prototype a more permanent version of Park(ing) Day. In response, we created one of the world’s first parklets in San Francisco (we called our version walklet), and through the diligent efforts of Andres Power in the Mayor’s Office and City Planning, San Francisco’s pioneering parklet program was born.

By early 2020, San Francisco had created 70 parklets in every corner of the city, and the city’s parklet program, now part of Groundplay SF, had become a model for cities around the world.

And then came the pandemic.

After the initial period of lockdown restriction, data emerged that anything we could be doing outdoors, we should be doing outdoors. Communities around the country then began to look to outdoor spaces and the public right-of-way to accommodate outdoor dining, pick-up and drop-off, exercise, socialization, and play. Outdoor dining programs like the City of San Francisco’s Shared Spaces and the City of Oakland’s Slow Streets were launched across the country.

The proliferation of outdoor dining spaces was mind-boggling. In San Francisco alone, there are more than 2,000 outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets — parklets are by definition public spaces). All over the country, almost overnight, parking spaces and streets have been transformed into places for people. While many of these spaces have succeeded in their original intended purpose of supporting local businesses and accommodating public health guidelines regarding social distancing, it may now be that they have outlived their useful lives. While many cities are making the move to make the outdoor dining spaces permanent, due the rapid nature of their creation, only a handful of these spaces live up to the original ideals of the parklet program to contribute something meaningful to the public realm.

A few of the over 2,000 shared spaces outdoor dining platforms (don’t call them parklets) on Valencia Street in San Francisco. / John Bela

Communities around the country are grappling with the future of these temporary outdoor spaces. To tackle this question, I have been in conversation with peers in Oakland, Seattle, Vancouver and other cities. My original thinking was that by default — because these spaces occupy precious curbside public right-of-way — the best outcome is that they all become parklets — that is public space, accessible during the city’s standard public space operating hours.

Parklets, by definition, are publicly accessible and open to all. They work best when their design cues create an invitation for many types of uses — from eating takeout from the adjacent restaurant or cafe, to bike parking, or simply taking a pause on a busy commercial street for a chat with friends. In fact, during the pandemic, when many of our more traditional venues of social infrastructure like schools and libraries have been closed, these smaller spaces have become that much more critical for supporting the everyday casual encounters that are the basis of social cohesion and community building.

But what I’ve learned in the course of my conversations with peers from across the country has resulted in an evolution of my previous thinking, and here’s why.

Lessons from the “Emerald City”

Inspired by San Francisco’s parklet program, businesses in Seattle became interested in building parklets and approached the city in 2011. Today, Seattle has both a parklet program and a streatery program. Seattle’s parklets are much like those in San Francisco where a local sponsor designs, builds, and maintains the space, and the city government issues the permit and ensures adherence to design standards. The streatery model is unique in that they provide commercial cafe seating during business hours as well as public access after business hours.

A Seattle Streatery, a hybrid public/private space. / SDOT

That’s right, it’s a hybrid public space. But how well does this work in practice? Do people use the streateries as public parklets after business hours? Has the city run into any issues regarding liability, or challenges with illicit behavior happening in the streateries when there is no one around to keep their “eyes on the street”?

According to my peers in Seattle, following an extensive community survey, they have concluded the following: Streateries perform well from an economic development perspective and have fulfilled a need in the city for outdoor dining, adding vibrancy to Seattle’s streets. They do provide a public benefit in terms of creating vibrant streets bustling with activity. (The city enforces strict design guidelines for streateries such as a 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures that must be 50 percent transparent.) On the downside, streateries have not been perceived by the public as public space. The public amenities and invitation for use after business hours have been limited at best.

Seattle has some important lessons to share. First, private outdoor dining patios, like streateries, can contribute to economic development, social infrastructure, and create the public benefit of vibrant, safer streets when they adhere to basic good design principles. Second, the hybrid private / public space model sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s hard for an average member of the public to navigate unless there are strong design cues in either direction. In other words, don’t expect your thriving commercial district’s outdoor dining spaces to fulfill a public space need such as public gathering spaces or non-commercial community seating.

Van-city Speaks

But what can we learn from the Queen of the Northwest? As a social democracy, everything is better managed and more beautiful in Vancouver, Canada, so it’s no surprise that this city is leading the way for all of us regarding the future of outdoor public and private spaces. Vancouver’s parklets are very different from San Francisco’s or Seattle’s in that they are designed, funded and built by the city. This has been good for adherence to design standards and ensuring high quality and beautiful parklets. The downside is that due to limited city funding and staff capacity, there were only a handful of parklets created each year.

A Vancouver parklet, a dedicated community serving public space. / City of Vancouver

In response to a growing demand from restaurants and cafes, Vancouver also created a curbside patio program for commercial outdoor dining. Prior to the pandemic, six patios had been approved by the city. When the pandemic hit, the city created a temporary expedited patio permit process. Since June 1, 2020, the city has approved over 400 temporary patios on private and city property.

A typical Vancouver patio designed for commercial outdoor dining. / Google Streetview

Following the initial success of the parklet program, but acknowledging the inherent obstacles of city-led parklets, the city stopped accepting new conventional parklet applications and instead focused their energy on a pop-up plaza program in partnership with local business districts, which has resulted in the creation of 20 nicely-designed plazas with broad public support. Vancouver found that for about the same amount of time and money as a parklet, they could create much more generous and useful pop-up plaza spaces. The second initiative is a community focused parklet program, created in partnership with social service organizations in underserved neighborhoods like the Downtown Eastside. These parklets are designed and built by the city and programmed and managed with a dedicated community partner to offer such programs as health clinics and safe injection sites.

A well-designed and maintained social service parklet in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. / City of Vancouver, BC.

What this means is that as a citizen of Vancouver navigating the city’s streets you have lots of choices. You can choose to pay for seating and experience the buzz and vibrancy of the commercial outdoor dining happening in one of the city’s 400 patios, or you can walk a bit further down the street and hang out at the free public seating in a city-sponsored pop-up plaza or a parklet.

One of the 20 city-led pop-up plazas that provide public seating, shade, bike parking, and public programs. / City of Vancouver.

From my point of view, this is the right balance of public and private use of the curb lane in the public right-of-way. We all want thriving, economically-vibrant commercial districts AND we want meaningful investment in high-quality and well-maintained public spaces in our neighborhoods. The role of the Vancouver municipality has been to be the referee — to ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district there are both public and private seating options.

The Upshot

So while my original view was that outdoor dining should be redesigned and converted to public parklets, I now see the powerful and important role that well-designed patios can play in adding to the social and economic vibrancy of our streets. What I don’t support is trying to force these tiny curb lane spaces to be all things for all people. Attempting to saddle commercial patios with public seating or public-use requirements both dilutes their ability to serve their primary commercial purpose and sends confusing signals to the public.

Nor do I support continuing to allow the free-for-all use of the curb lane that has occurred during the pandemic and which has resulted in the proliferation of low-quality, poorly designed, and potentially dangerous commercial outdoor dining platforms. Many of these spaces feel opaque and claustrophobic, blocking visual access to ground floor retail and obstructing city sidewalks.

Businesses who want to use curb lane space for commercial outdoor dining must recognize the immediate benefit of the use of the public right-of-way for their businesses and compensate cities for the use of the space. By pricing the curb appropriately, cities can generate revenue to support and invest in public realm improvements and city staff time to manage their outdoor space programs. Also, patios must adhere to basic good design principles like 42-inch height maximum for surrounding enclosures; 50 percent transparent walls; and a direct, accessible connection to the adjacent sidewalk in order to generate the public benefit of vibrant, lively streets.

This outdoor dining platform is porous, accessible, light filled, and designed with simple and durable materials by designer Léa Saito for the Bon Nene Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district / John Bela

With the revenue generated from commercial outdoor dining patio permit fees, cities can then invest in the parklets and pop-up plazas that can continue to fulfill a crucial role for everyday, informal social encounters that form the basis of social bonding and community cohesion. Parklets and pop-up plazas work well when there is a dedicated sponsor or steward — like a community organization, or an adjacent sponsor which has an established take-out business model like an ice cream shop or cafe — who is in charge of daily maintenance and programming of the space. Public space is a verb, not a static object. Public spaces must be cultivated and maintained to flourish and grow so that they are best able to contribute meaningfully to a city’s social infrastructure and a diverse, inclusive, resilient public realm.

Landscape architects and urban designers have a crucial role to play in shaping the future of the use of outdoor spaces. As upholders of design quality, we can ensure that the next generation of commercial outdoor dining patios are well-designed and contribute to a high-quality and vibrant public realm.

As stewards of public space and the public realm, we can ensure that in any given neighborhood or commercial district, there are beautifully-designed public spaces, with generous public seating and lively programming, to create invitations to all city residents to socialize and spend time together.

This beautiful outdoor dining platform was designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / John Bela
John Bela, ASLA, sitting in the outdoor dining platform designed and created by Cotogna in San Francisco’s Jackson square. / Superworks

John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.

A More Accessible and Equitable Reflection Riding in Tennessee

Canopy walk in the framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Through a new framework plan, the 317-acre Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee is being re-imagined as an accessible, equitable educational center that tells the story of the incredible biodiversity of Tennessean landscapes. Once a drive-through arboretum, Reflection Riding is poised to become an important model for ecological restoration and wildlife conservation, with expanded enclosures for wolves and eagles. As part of a six month planning process, SCAPE Landscape Architecture developed a proposal that will re-orient and create new buildings, offer a new entry sequence and visitor center, prioritize restoration areas, and expand a forest school and kindergarten, canopy walks and trails, and a native plant nursery.

“We are fortunate we can work with clients that align with our ethos and values. Reflection Riding is focused on some of our key priorities: access, education, and conserving and restoring natural landscapes. This is what landscape architecture in the 21st century should be,” explained Nans Voron, senior associate at SCAPE, in a phone interview.

The framework plan celebrates the vision and legacy of John A. Chambliss, who founded the arboretum in the early 20th century. SCAPE and the arboretum sought to maintain Chambliss’ core values, rooted in “his deep love and respect for the landscape.” But they also sought to make the arboretum more accessible and equitable through a more welcoming entry sequence and expanded educational programs geared towards underserved communities that live nearby.

New proposed visitor center in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

In its first few decades, the arboretum was designed as a drive-through loop. Later, once cars were excluded, horses became a means of exploring the landscape. With the new ecological restoration goals, the horses stabled on site will eventually be phased out.

“My impression is that many people who live near Reflection Riding don’t know it exists,” Voron said. This could be a result of the gates that limit access at the entrance; the horse-back riding in the arboretum, which may be viewed as exclusive; and confusion about the arboretum’s connection to a neighboring national park.

With a redesigned entrance, SCAPE hopes more visitors will feel the arboretum is also a place for them. A new visitor center will make all the educational options more easily understood. The existing forest school and kindergarten will approximately double in size and be moved closer to the entrance, where an expanded native plant nursery, which offers plants for sale to the public, will also be located.

Revamped native plant nursery in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Trails throughout the arboretum and nature center will be made ADA accessible, and a new “Braille trail” for blind and low vision users is being considered. SCAPE proposes a series of learning stations along shorter loops organized around themes such as geology, hydrology, and the role of this landscape in the Civil War.

Learning station (at right) in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture
New loop trail system in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

While the framework plan is rooted in a comprehensive analysis of the many complex natural systems found within the arboretum, which range from creeks and streams to meadows, wetlands, and forests, Voron said SCAPE focused in on some key restoration opportunities in the wetlands around Lookout Creek and the many small streams that feed into it. “There are currently two artificial ponds; we instead propose restoring the wetland and tidal landscapes so they can create more wildlife habitat and also better accommodate more water in the wet season.”

Priority restoration areas in framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Elevated canopy walks now exist in the arboretum but will be extended into the restored wetlands and redesigned to offer greater flexibility, a lighter footprint, and a higher elevation to accommodate for climate change. “The new canopy walks will be more resilient and offer a different experience,” Voron contends.

In forested parts of the arboretum, there have been continual efforts to remove invasive plants. New plans to scale up the native plant nursery create opportunities to accelerate the restoration of the natural landscapes and make the arboretum a showcase for restorative design. Another goal is to invite researchers to study ecological change, making the arboretum a true learning laboratory.

Lookout Mountain geology outlined in the framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

New enclosures for the animals protected in the arboretum’s wildlife center won’t function like a typical zoo. “While the animal enclosures will be accessible to the public during business hours, Reflection Riding won’t be caging animals in small pens. You may or may not see the wolves and raptors when you visit.”

Nature center in the framework plan for Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center / SCAPE Landscape Architecture

Voron explained that the new plan for the wildlife center was challenging, because “each species has many requirements, and some couldn’t be adjacent to others.” Different species of native eagles and other raptors will be carefully separated from various kinds of native wolves. “The goal was to limit disturbances to each species.”

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

ASLA Smart Policies for a Changing Climate. NatureScape, Orange County, California / Jodie Cook Design, Inc.

Is Artificial Turf Right for You? 3 Things to Consider Before Installing a Fake Lawn — 08/12/21, Architectural Digest
“According to San Clemente landscape designer Jodie Cook, although grass requires potable water and turf doesn’t, that’s too narrow a comparison. Other elements of the water cycle are a major issue. Plants, even grasses, create water themselves. ‘When you put turf down and replace a living plant, you’re removing moisture from the environment,’ she explains. ‘You’re removing atmospheric water.'”

Native Land Acknowledgments Are Not the Same as Land — 08/12/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The growing practice of acknowledging Indigenous land ancestry is a positive change, but tribal stewardship must be the end goal.”

The Senate Infrastructure Bill Includes $1 Billion to Address Devastation Caused by Freeways. Experts Say It’s Not Enough — 08/11/21, Fast Company
“The latest edition of the Congress for New Urbanism’s Freeways Without Futures report highlights 15 projects that it says are primed for a transformation, including Interstate 244 in Tulsa, Interstate 5 in Seattle, and Interstate 980 in Oakland.”

Your Garden May Be Pretty, but Is It Ecologically Sound? — 08/11/21, The New York Times
“Some gardeners react to any mention of ecological landscaping — the merging of environmental science and art — as if it were a compromise or concession meant to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has been practicing and teaching this philosophy for some five decades, begs to differ.”

Study: Protected Bike Paths Saved Lives During COVID — 08/10/21, Streetsblog
“In a report released today, researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety dug into the nuances of America’s (still-ongoing) pandemic-era bike boom by scrutinizing the spatial and temporal distribution of pre- and post-lockdown bicycle trip counts and crash counts in the city of Arlington, VA.”

Using Nature to Combat Climate Change — 08/09/21, CNN
“Landscape architect and founder of SCAPE Kate Orff describes how regenerative living infrastructure can help mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change.”

The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Help? — 08/02/21, The New Yorker
“A great deal of [Kate] Orff’s work addresses the inescapable fact that the Atlantic Ocean is rising, and coming for the land. She’s the founder of the design firm scape, the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, and the first landscape architect to win a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. She’s also at the forefront of an emerging approach to climate resilience that argues we should be building with nature, not just in nature.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 16-31)

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park, Sanya City, Hainan Province, China. Turenscape

To Curb Urban Flooding, China Is Building ‘Sponge Cities.’ Do They Work? — 07/29/21, The Christian Science Monitor
“Yu Kongjian, a professor of landscape architecture at Peking University, is credited as the main architect of the sponge city concept. In a 2019 video for the World Economic Forum, he described the previous approach to flood prevention as ‘totally wrong.'”

National ‘Vision Zero’ Resolution Introduced — 07/28/21, Streetsblog
“After months of intense campaigning from advocates, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a bi-cameral resolution Tuesday expressing the desire of the legislature to ‘reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2050.'”

As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must. — 07/26/21, The New York Times
“Yu Kongjian, the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, is credited with popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China had turned to designs from the West that were ill-suited for the extremes that the country’s climate was already experiencing. Cities were covered in cement, ‘colonized,’ as he put it, by ‘gray infrastructure.'”

The Architectural League Celebrates 2021 President’s Medal Recipient Walter Hood — 07/22/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“As noted by the League, Hood, as an artist and designer dedicated to ‘creating beauty in everyday environments, revealing hidden histories, renewing connections, guiding the way to co-existence in all our multiplicity and difference,’ was a ‘fitting person to honor at the moment of our re-engagement of public life.'”

How to Give a Modernist Icon a Makeover — 07/22/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Hiroshi Sugimoto’s renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden will bring the Japanese designer’s touch to a space long acclaimed as a modernist landmark.”

In Order to Achieve Tree Equity, the U.S. Must Plant 522 Million Trees in Urban Areas — 07/20/22, The Urbanist
“In order to make up for discrepancies between levels of tree coverage in neighborhoods lacking resources and more affluent, often White majority neighborhoods, the United States must commit to planting 522 million trees in urban areas.”

At CUT|FILL, Debate over How to Expand Access to the Landscape Architecture Profession

“A pipeline is a smooth, enclosed surface that moves something from A to B as quickly as possible,” explained Marc Miller, ASLA, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), at the 2021 CUT|Fill Unconference. When using the term pipeline in regards to the act of moving young people into the landscape architecture profession, there are a “lot of assumptions.” A pipeline conveys the idea of a single pathway into the profession and can be associated with the historic exclusionary nature of licensure. Instead of a pipeline, Miller called for a mat with many entry points that enables people of color to more easily access landscape architecture and other design professions.

Matt Williams, ASLA, a landscape designer and planner with the city of Detroit who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Louisiana State University (LSU), argued that for “black people, there is no straight line into the profession.”

And in the comments during the Zoom discussion, there were lots of agreement on this point. Cindy Gilliland, ASLA, a landscape architect, noted that “there is no straight line for women either.” Instead of a pipeline, perhaps there are “chutes and ladders,” commented Ujijji Davis, ASLA, a landscape architect in Detroit. For Jeana Pearl Fletcher, Student ASLA, the concept of a pipeline “makes me question the hierarchy that exists in institutions and pedagogy in general. How do we move forward without this constructed hierarchy, which often leads to the trajectory of a pipeline?”

The kick-off session of CUT|FILL was meant to initiate “difficult conversations” around the theme: “Are we building a bridge to the future?” Panelists called for major change in how landscape architecture is taught. A core argument: the non-inclusive framing of landscape architecture and its history, particularly in K-12 educational materials and design school curricula, turns off a lot of people of color from even considering the profession.

For Miller, the challenge working with CELA, a global organization that support landscape architecture academics and students across the planet, is the different conceptions of diversity. One way around this issue is to take a universal approach to unearthing the landscape traditions that have been long buried by colonialism in so many countries.

As an example, he pointed to American landscape writings from the late 1700s. He questioned why these should be among the few texts taught from the era, given they don’t include the history of 1619, when slaves first arrived on the shores of this country. When we revisit history from the understanding that many landscape traditions make up the landscape of the U.S., “we have a radically different history” that can resonate with more diverse students.

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) has been trying to support multiple pathways into the profession of landscape architecture, explained Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, the organization’s CEO. LAF has supported research, which is “the basis of innovation,” through more than 170 Landscape Performance Series case studies; scholarships for those entering the profession; and leadership development programs, including their Leadership and Innovation Fellows programs. Their focus is on making the landscape architecture profession even more inclusive and growing diverse leaders. “We are trying to spread out a range of efforts out and look systematically at the whole journey of becoming a landscape architect.”

Williams stated that his work in Detroit isn’t just about planning but also increasing planning and design literacy among young people in the city. A recent framework plan covering 5 square miles of the Warrendale Cody Rouge community “emphasized youth engagement and was led with a youth-centric lens.”

Chill zone at Stein Park, Detroit / City of Detroit Department of Planning and Development

In his education and career, Williams said, he has made “hundreds of maps,” but he discovered young people had never seen their neighborhood mapped or even knew how zip codes or routes to schools were formed. “I saw young people go from not understanding to wanting to become planners, designers, and policymakers.” Planners and designers in his department are now working with K-12 students to teach mapping and the legacy of redlining and the impact of gentrification in the city.

“I have taken advantage of every crack in the pipeline over my career,” said Mae Lin Plummer, co-chair of the inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility task force at the American Public Gardens Association. And instead of directing people to one career pathway, “we need to use vast networks to create success — think of the fungal networks underneath the roots of trees. It’s about building relationships.”

For her, a key question is: “why doesn’t everyone want to do garden design?” She found her experience at a public botanical garden to be welcoming and uplifting but has since discovered many changes need to be made to make the field of public horticultural design more accessible and inclusive. “Public gardens are at a crossroads. In the past, they perpetuated elitism and had a passive influence on a small group of society.” There’s a shift underway in which public garden designers are taking an active role, everywhere from public gardens to hell strips to rooftops.

She urged anyone rethinking their approaches to inclusion and accessibility to “keep asking why you are making the change; peel back the layers; interrogate reality; mine for clarity, like you would weeding a garden, which can be dirty and uncomfortable.”

Jennifer Reut, acting editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, said that leadership and how “gatekeeping or boundary defining” occurs in the profession of landscape architecture are now evolving. Today, the profession is being challenged by “big ideas” that will shape what the field becomes in the future. She argued that different media are required for different audiences — “video, TikTok, and Twitter may be needed to reach some, while others still prefer print.” And that different media also alters the messages and stories. “It’s a major challenge to reach everyone.”

She also questioned whether images of finished plans and projects are the best ways to engage young people about the profession. “We show them projects rooted in a set of formal ideas and values about how things should look. In the magazine, we have been trying to instead show photos of community planning meetings where landscape architects and community members are building trust. I sometimes receive feedback: ‘Well, that isn’t landscape architecture.’ For me, it is, and I think that’s where we need to start in showing the design process.”

As the exchange flowed, Miller returned to the idea of a single pipeline and how it can be re-conceived for a more diverse world. American landscape history needs to more deeply explore “property, labor, and people.” Also, the “binary focus” on just white colonialists and enslaved Africans leaves out the story of indigenous people and their role in American landscapes.

In Australia, a new bi-cultural landscape pedagogy is being taught that integrates Aboriginal and white colonial histories. This approach could be a way to “take apart the entire foundation of Western frameworks” of landscape architecture education. Williams questioned whether existing Western frameworks are really Western to begin with. “We need to expand the foundations of pedagogy to attract more people.”

Commission of Fine Arts Approves Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Design

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

After a free-wheeling three-hour review, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in Washington, D.C. approved the latest design of the Hirshhorn sculpture garden from a team led by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese artist, architect, and landscape designer. The contentious revamp of the garden, which has gone through two years of review and refinement, features reconfigured outdoor sculpture galleries, a diverse and rich tree and planting design, a new central pool — and the most controversial element, stacked stone walls. The landscape design brings a contemporary Japanese sense of space and materials to the National Mall and will be only the second Asian-inspired design after the Moongate Garden found next to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The new design further diversifies the multicultural experience of the National Mall, which now includes the National Museum of African American History and Culture that incorporates African design motifs.

As ASLA and the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) have recently highlighted, the CFA is currently without a landscape architect for only the second time in its 112-year history. Just a few years ago, three landscape architects, academics, and designers — Mia Lehrer, FASLA, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, and Liza Gilbert, ASLA — were among the commissioners. But with the new set of four commissioners appointed by the Biden-Harris administration, the CFA is also one of the most diverse in its history, with three commissioners of color, including the first woman and Asian American chair, architect Billie Tsien. The lack of representation of landscape architects on the CFA is a source of concern as the CFA frequently reviews proposals that impact historic landscapes.

Melissa Chiu, the Chinese Australian executive director of the Hirshhorn, introduced the presentation by the design team, which is led by Sugimoto and includes Felix Ade, an architect from YUN Architecture; Faye Harwell, FASLA, a landscape architect and founder of the D.C.-based firm Rhodeside & Harwell; and Alyson Steele, an architect with the D.C.-based architecture firm Quinn Evans.

Chiu argued that the design by Sugimoto and team is a “natural evolution” of the current garden, because Gordon Bunshaft, the original Hirshhorn museum and garden architect, was deeply influenced by Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi and traveled to Japan, where he appreciated stacked stone walls.

Bunshaft’s Brutalist design for the sculpture garden, which opened in 1974, was without trees so became a “hot micro-climate” in the punishing Washington, D.C. summer. In 1981, landscape architect Lester Collins, also a “student of Asian design,” completed a redesign of the garden, creating smaller rooms; adding ample maples, pines, and plants; and a wheelchair-accessible ramp at the National Mall entrance to the park, an advance in accessibility years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. Prior to Collins’ redesign, the central underground pathway leading from the sunken sculpture garden to the museum was closed. The passageway was viewed as dark and perhaps unsafe and was reconfigured as an educational center.

Lester Collins’ 1981 redesign of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden / Hirshhorn Museum

The new design includes three outdoor gallery experiences that will provide greater curatorial flexibility for the Hirshhorn, Chiu argued.

A new central gallery is a flexible garden space designed for performance art. Responding to feedback from consulting parties as part of seven Section 106 reviews, the Hirshhorn has kept the form of Bunschaft’s original rectangular pool, which mirrors a window above in the Hirshhorn facade. An additional pool has gone through many revisions.

Central Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

The design team ultimately landed on a U-shaped pool immediately to the south of the original rectangular pool, separated by a new five-foot-wide central walkway and stage. The pool can drain for events, providing tiers of seating. Harwell argued that it will be a much-needed respite in D.C.’ s brutal summers, helping to cool the space.

Central Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

A west gallery will provide space for newly commissioned, large-scale sculpture, with a lawn. The area can be used for “site-specific works, film festivals, and school groups,” Chiu said.

West Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

A new east gallery will create smaller rooms filled with trees that offer more intimate spaces for the Rodin and Henry Moore sculptures now found in the garden.

East Gallery at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

Responding to feedback from the CFA’s first review in 2019 that approved the general concepts, there is now a more fleshed-out landscape design. Harwell explained that the new design preserves much of Collins’ work by protecting the large elms that ring the garden and continuing to feature the pines and maples he planted. But to combat the “sameness” of the current landscape, Harwell is adding nine tree and 40 ground cover species, 70 percent of which will be native. Plants were selected for texture, and colors include whites and cremes, with hints of red. The landscape is designed for seasonal change and to create a sense of “stylized naturalism.”

New broad stone pavers, which are being evaluated in a test area of the garden, will replace the current brown squares. New handrails will be bronze, as they are now. Throughout the landscape, stormwater will be managed on-site, with the help of two underground cisterns that will capture water for irrigation.

New paver design at right, with existing brown square pavers at bottom left / Jared Green

At the south end of the garden, the passageway linking the museum with the garden will be re-opened and sheathed in mirror-like panels that bring light to the tunnel. Commissioners were universally positive about the feature, with Commissioner James McCrery calling it “brilliant.”

View of the new staircase leading to the Museum at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

At the north end, where the garden meets the National Mall, the width of Bunshaft’s original entrance — 60-feet — is restored in the new design. The concrete wall that visitors now see when they enter will also be replaced by a much shorter 42-inch-high stacked stone wall. The accessible ramps at the north entrance will be moved to the west side of the garden, and a new entrance will be created on the east side.

North entrance at Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum
View from north entrance at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

Commissioner Justin Garrett Moore argued that ramps on just the west side of the garden don’t go far enough to create a universally accessible experience for all wheelchair users at various access points. All commissioners agreed that an additional custom-designed elevator was required and needed further study.

New access points, with accessible ramp at left, at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden redesign / Hiroshi Sugimoto, YUN Architecture, Rhodeside & Harwell, Quinn Evans, courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum

The perimeter concrete walls, which are now “inherently unstable,” will be rebuilt, but within the space, new stone stacked inner partition walls will change the character of the space, softening its Brutalism with a more naturalistic feel. The design team has been testing prototypes of the wall within the garden.

Prototype stacked stone wall at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden / Jared Green

According to Ade and Steele, the new stacked stone walls, which will be comprised of stones sourced from a quarry in Pennsylvania, will offer better acoustics, as the walls will be rough, have open joints, and be subtly angled towards the sky, bouncing sound upwards. Chiu said the walls will be critical to supporting performance artists’ work. Ade and Steele confirmed that extensive acoustic studies were conducted to confirm they create a better sound environment than the current concrete walls, which apparently reflect sound directly back to its source.

In a video, Sugimoto said Bunshaft was inspired by Japanese Zen gardens and his goal is to simply “restructure Bunshaft’s design in spirit.” Throughout the review process, Sugimoto has vehemently defended the stacked stone walls as central to his overall design, arguing that they bring an “ancient spirit to a modern garden.” He said “the pre-modern stone stacked walls will make the modern sculpture stand out,” and through contrast will highlight their modernity.

In a break from tradition during the pandemic, organizations submitting comments on the proposals weren’t allowed to speak directly to commissioners; instead Thomas Luebke, secretary of the CFA, read summaries of feedback.

Since the sculpture garden concept design was reviewed two years ago, there have been vocal opposition to many design elements, including the walls and pool and the general shift in the character of the design away from the Brutalist landscape that is in unison with the building. One over-arching concern is the lack of consideration of Lester Collins’ 1981 redesign of the garden, which has recently been deemed eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places; two years ago, when the CFA first reviewed the proposed re-design, it hadn’t been.

TCLF, Committee of 100, and Docomomo have all raised concerns throughout the Section 106 review process. In a comprehensive set of comments and questions sent to the Commission, TCLF stated: “We are supportive of the revitalization efforts but have serious concerns about two design interventions that would fundamentally alter Gordon Bunshaft’s artistic vision, which was respected by landscape architect Lester Collins.” Those interventions are the new pool and stacked stone walls.

They also raised concerns about how the Smithsonian will maintain the new, more complex pool; whether enough research has been done on the acoustic benefits of the proposed walls; and why a reconfigured central galley is even needed, given the expanded western gallery.

Furthermore, Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and former vice chairwoman of the CFA, sent a clarification regarding her past statements, arguing that they have been used by the Hirshhorn “without context, leading to the impression that I endorse the current designs. I do not.” She outlined that the “period of significance” in the National Register of Historic Places nomination shifted to 1981 in February 2020, after the CFA last reviewed the conceptual designs, and this should trigger an important reconsideration of the changes to Collins’ designs.

But there are also supporters. Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of the landscape architecture OLIN, offered his opinions in an extensive memo that concludes “the project as currently proposed by Sugimoto, Harwell, et al, is far superior to what has existed adjacent to the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Mall until now, and if implemented will add a worthy layer to those that will inevitably remain embedded in the situation. The sculpture garden will become a sequential and combined work of Bunshaft, Collins, and Sugimoto, created through time, one far more interesting than any of them could have done alone.”

Perhaps only Olin’s comments were decisive in influencing the Commission, as the commissioners expressed an openness to what Sugimoto’s team proposed and didn’t call for sending the design back to the drawing board to reconsider Collins’ contributions to improving the original landscape.

Instead, the focus of the Commission was on how to rethink the accessibility, safety, and security of the sculpture garden and National Mall buildings and landscapes for the 21st century. And it seemed more than an hour of the conversation returned to these topics, as the commissioners repeatedly questioned what the experience would be like for a wheelchair user.

New Biden-appointed Commissioner Justin Garrett Moore, a transdisciplinary designer, urbanist, and program officer for the Humanities for Places program at the Andrew Mellon W. Foundation, who initiated the focus on accessibility, said the project was an “opportunity to explore what public landscapes should be and mean” for a contemporary Washington, D.C. We can expect to see a greater focus on moving universal design forward with this Commission.

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Tackle “Disorienting Dilemmas” (Part 1)

Rio Piedras watershed / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.

Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo: Taking on the Army Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an island of 3.2 million Americans. An unincorporated U.S. territory, it has a population larger than 20 U.S. states. The San Juan Estuary faces many challenges, including flooding, explained Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo, Principal, ECo. Efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the Rio Piedras, which spreads south from San Juan into the heart of the island, have brought up a complex set of issues related to “politics, economics, and flood conveyance.” Along its course, the river is both “polluted and biodiverse, near and inaccessible, beautiful and dangerous.” As a response to extreme flooding from Hurricane Maria, the Army Corps has allocated $1.5 billion to transform 9.5 miles of a “soft, natural river into a concrete, high-velocity channel” and insert five new bridges into the river landscape. “This shows a total disregard for climate change and environmental science” and also for the Army Corps own new nature-based engineering approach, Colón Izquierdo argued.

Rio Piedras / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

To better advocate for a nature-based approach that can make Puerto Rico more resilient to flooding, Colón Izquierdo has joined with scientists, advocates, and scholars who created Alianza Por La Cuenca del Rio Piedras, guided by the message “el rio esta vivo,” or “the river is alive.” While taking on the Army Corps, a complex bureaucracy, is analogous to “David attempting to defeat Goliath,” Colón Izquierdo believes the effort is critical because the design is “many decades behind in its conception.” In fact, the design is from 1992 and environmental impact statement from 1993; the project was resuscitated after Hurricane Maria decimated the island and exposed the vulnerability of so many living in Puerto Rico’s floodplains. By organizing design charettes and educating the public about nature-based options to improving the safety and health of the river, Colón Izquierdo seeks to build capacity, find leverage, and “get a seat at the table” — and perhaps save other rivers in Puerto Rico from the same fate.

Rio Piedras design charrette / Edmundo “Mundy” Colón Izquierdo

Andrea Johnson: Imagining New Forms of Community-owned Renewable Energy

Sunset Park, Brooklyn / Andrea Johnson

Bounded at one side by the Bronx-Queens Expressway, the neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn includes a jail, mechanic shops, warehouses, and vacant land, explained Andrea Johnson, a visiting assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. A maritime hub, the community is home to the Brooklyn Terminal, a massive industrial and commercial building that is now covered in a solar array cooperatively managed. This array got Johnson thinking about the hidden energy systems that comprise the community that can be re-imagined to provide “collective social value.”

When electricity demand in NYC increases, gas-driven peakers in Sunset Park start up, which contributes to the noxious air quality in the neighborhood, which includes mostly people of color. UPROSE, a community group, and other local organizations, have been trying to get the New York Power Authority to permanently close the peakers in favor of renewable energy, but the authority has only put them on stand by. Johnson said “decommissioning the peakers and replacing with publicly-owned renewable energy would lead to a more just and equitable energy system.” If decarbonization occurs through community-run renewable energy, then people in Sunset Park could benefit from electricity surges.

“There is a role for landscape architects here that needs to be seized. We can get ahead of the policy and innovate from how energy is perceived, stored, and used.” She analyzed and discovered 75 megawatts of energy could be generated on public rooftops in the community. “Back-up storage sources could then be spread across the public sphere.” Johnson and her students at CUNY have been imagining other new solutions that involve wind turbines, micro-grids, utility-scale batteries, a “gravity park” in which heavy blocks are raised to create kinetic energy that can be stored, and other systems that can both generate and store energy and serve as cleaner, more just forms of peakers.

Sunset Park renewable energy and storage concept / Andrea Johnson
Gravity Park concept / Andrea Johnson

Diego Bermúdez: A Comprehensive Plan for Protecting Bogotá’s Cultural Landscapes

The savanna of Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

Bogotá, Colombia, is a city of 9 million people and continues to expand rapidly at its periphery. This sprawl threatens the historic Bogotá savanna, an important high-altitude wetland landscape. Diego Bermúdez, principal and partner, Bermúdez Arquitectos, in Bogotá, explained that 2,500 years ago, the area formed the vast floodplains of the Bogotá River and its many tributaries. Pre-Hispanic settlers, the indigenous Muisca people, who lived in small villages, built canals and berms to create flood-proof zones for growing food. “They lived amid 100,000 acres of wetlands and were amphibious people.”

When the Spanish arrived in the 17th century, they removed the Muisca and subdivided the land to scale up industrial food production. Farms were organized into grids, with protective canals, to increase yields. By the 1920s, the government created a water management district that was meant to preserve the irrigation systems. Those layers of water management history are now threatened by rampant sprawl and development into the savanna region. Bermúdez said the city’s population is expected to increase to 10.5 million in 2035 and reach upwards of 14 million by 2050.

Expected urban expansion into agricultural areas of Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

To protect the savanna landscape, which grows 40 percent of the city’s food, Bermúdez proposes a strategy that first protects the historic canals, which are also hubs for biodiversity, including 200 species of birds. “Water management can be a tool for reimagining the future.” As he spent a year traveling to these agricultural communities and also meeting the developers who are urbanizing the area, he found “new hope,” because “people want to protect the water management system for flooding, biodiversity, and recreation.” Bermúdez has been working to connect the disparate players and layers of plans into a regional plan that can guide development away from the savanna, create protective zones for the historic agricultural landscapes, and further densify the core of Bogotá.

A new layered regional plan for Bogotá / Diego Bermúdez

Read part two on this year’s LAF fellows.

Emerging Landscape Architecture Leaders Tackle “Disorienting Dilemmas” (Part 2)

San Joaquin Valley farmer profiles / Community Alliance for Agroecology

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s most recent class of innovation and leadership fellows spent the past year “unearthing assumptions and trying to find a path forward” through the “disorienting dilemmas” facing the world, explained Cindy Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, in the kick-off off LAF’s now annual symposium. Each fellow seeks to generate “ethically-motivated societal change,” which in the process required “personal transformation.” Over two days, this year’s six fellows delved into the results of their independent research and leadership building efforts, which were each supported by a $25,000 grant from LAF.

Alison Hirsch: Equitable and Sustainable Water Management for California’s Central Valley

California’s Central Valley accounts for one-fourth of the country’s food supply, but it’s a deeply troubled agricultural landscape. Alison Hirsch, associate professor of landscape architecture and urbanism and program director, University of Southern California in Los Angeles, characterized the landscape as challenged by climate change, poverty, animal waste, pollution, collapsing aquifers, and racist labor and immigration practices that are the result of the “violence of an extractive system.” But it’s also a “landscape of extreme resilience and that provide optimism.”

Hirsh brought a “longitudinal action research” framework, which was conceived by Ann Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at MIT, in order to conduct “investigative mapping” and find opportunities for structural policy changes.

San Joaquin Valley mapping / Alison Hirsch with Lauren Cubacub, MLA, USC

For example, Hirsch and her team of USC landscape architecture students found that “big farms get the best and most groundwater.” These industrial farms can dig up to 250 feet deep to get at remnant pockets of groundwater. This process is increasingly leaving black and brown communities, many of which are immigrants, without access to water. Furthermore, old dry wells are contaminated with animal waste and arsenic, which then poisons other water sources used by immigrant workers. Hirsch studied local organizations and interviewed farmers advocating for more equitable and sustainable water management as part of eco-agricultural cooperatives.

Key informants of research / Alison Hirsch

Alexa Vaughn-Brainard: Going Beyond ADA to Achieve Universal Design

Medical model vs. social model / Alexa Vaughn-Brainard

“I am a deaf woman, a disabled person, and a landscape designer,” explained Alexa Vaughn-Brainard, Assoc. ASLA, with MIG. “I am constantly adapting myself to the built environment but it’s not adapting to me. Enough is enough: We have been fighting the same battles since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed thirty years ago.” Vaughn-Brainard said communities need to move away from “the medical model in which the person is the problem,” to a “social model in which the built environment is the problem.” According to the World Health Organization, 1 billion people around the world are disabled, which is one-seventh the global population. In the U.S., 20-25 percent have a disability. “Disability is a spectrum; and some disabilities are invisible.” Furthermore, disabled people are a group “anyone can join at any time.”

Spectrum of disabilities / Alexa Vaughn-Brainard

Recounting the long fight to achieve ADA requirements for buildings and landscapes, Vaughn-Brainard argued that they are really the bare minimum. Explaining her Deafscape design guidelines, she outlined how deaf people need 10-to-12-foot-wide sidewalks so they can walk and sign; a “degree of enclosure” to feel safe so recommended tall-back seating; and broader lines of sight. She called for the use of universal design principles as a “creative tool,” because there are no “one size fits all” solutions. Vaughn-Brainard outlined approaches for designing with disabled communities and especially disabled designers — from accessible meetings and focus groups, to accessible plans and models for teams of abled and disabled to review together, to accessibility audits landscape architects can undertake with communities.

Disabled stakeholder meeting in Eugene, Oregon / OLIN, Cameron McCarthy

Roxi Thoren: An Introspective Journey into a World Shaped by Multiple Species

Before the pandemic struck, Roxi Thoren, ASLA, head of the department of landscape architecture at Penn State University, had planned a series of programs and a book to explore how climate change posed a threat to complex ecological relationships among species. Thoren argues that the world is full of species, and that designers must increasingly approach animals with respect and co-design with them. “How can we include animals? How can we with collaborate with them?,” she urged us to consider.

Turning towards her residential landscape and neighborhood in Oregon, and the plants and animals that call it home, Thoren instead found inspiration in nature, offering a poem accompanied by a slideshow of images.

Read part one on this year’s LAF fellows.

Barbara Wilks’ Dynamic Geographies

Dynamic Geographies / Barbara Wilks, ORO Editions

By Grace Mitchell Tada

Static. According to Barbara Wilks, FASLA, landscapes are too often designed with that operating assumption.

Even though humans have been around for the past 200,000 years, we still have a proclivity to design landscapes to remain the same for 20 to 50 years.

Wilks argues this is a problem that needs to change. Given the projected growth of cities and the challenges of a rapidly shifting climate, she asserts that dynamic landscapes are required for resilient, healthy urban communities.

She strives to create these landscapes at her firm, W Architecture & Landscape Architecture. Her ideas about landscapes emerge from decades of professional experience. In a new book, Dynamic Geographies, Wilks demonstrates how she centers natural processes through her designs. As most of her projects unfold in cities, this necessarily includes altering how humans perceive the landscapes around them.

Wilks defines dynamic geographies as complex systems that use non-anthropogenic forces for adaptation. For landscape architects to integrate these systems into projects, they must consider other species, the interconnectivity of various forms of life, and time as a landscape element. Landscape architects must design to larger and multiple time scales. They must gauge “what could be as opposed to what we want changed now.”

A key aspect to designing at various time scales involves transforming how we manage landscapes—and that includes the management of W’s projects. At present, they require humans to maintain. A truly sustainable landscape, Wilks asserts, can exist without humans, allowing “different flows and rates of change for different species.” As a result, W designs landscapes that welcome these processes: it’s these forms of maintenance that in the long run can yield diverse and sustaining landscapes.

The book divides W’s projects into three categories: “(In)visible Geographies,” “Layered Geographies,” and “Unleashing Geographies.” Each section builds on the other, and projects across these sections seek to illuminate landscapes’ dynamism and situate geographies within extended time scales. While Wilks doesn’t claim success in all her projects—“this book is a critical look back at our success and failures at W”—one can glean effective strategies to instill dynamism throughout projects.

In the first section, projects attempt to reveal aspects of sites often hidden, “making them manifest, so that urban dwellers have the opportunity to situate themselves in larger systems that transcend their immediate realities,” writes Alison Hirsch in the book’s introduction. Wilks is not nostalgic for us to return to previous time or to lost landscapes. “We can’t return to the past,” she writes, but “we can construct new relationships that bind us into the fabric of a place’s ongoing evolution.”

Through these new relationships, Wilks hopes communities can understand they are embedded in and not separate from nature. W’s projects facilitate this understanding in various ways. In Baltimore, a waterfront soap factory simultaneously reflects its location in the greater Chesapeake Bay region and in an industrial harbor. In Brooklyn, the off-kilter angles of the piers at the Edge project echo the turbulence of the East River into which they extend.

At West Harlem Piers Park in Manhattan, newly designed piers adopt the patterns of the Hudson River instead of the city grid. The site’s forms resemble sand dunes and the benches recall driftwood. The project, though, didn’t emerge solely of the designer’s ideas. In fact, the community spurned W’s initial conception of the project involving a “missing pier”—a field of piles in the Hudson—as too evocative of a ruin. In its place, New York City’s first reef ball structure was developed, which today serves as habitat to a diversity of aquatic life.

West Harlem Piers, New York, NY / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The book’s second section, “Layered Geographies,” doubles down on integrating the social and ecological systems comprising urban spaces. The projects here demonstrate the relationships between communities and the place in which they’re embedded. Several projects were designed for communities in places destroyed by urban renewal or disregarded by infrastructure projects, including in St. Louis and Detroit.

Chouteau Greenway, St. Louis, MO / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

One such project is Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter in Tampa, Florida. The park was previously an African American neighborhood, which was demolished with the construction of a highway. A park was established in its place, from which the displaced community understandably felt estranged. W was brought in to work with them to develop a park that reflected what they wanted. Not only does the new park embody the community’s desires, but it weaves into the surrounding urban social fabric and allows the river ecology to flourish. Like many of W’s projects, this landscape necessitated considerations of many time scales — from the daily to the generational to the geological.

Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
Julian B. Lane Park and Rivercenter, Tampa, FL / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO
St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

The final section, “Unleashing Geographies,” further elevates nonhuman systems and their agency in shaping landscapes, especially over extended time scales. Wilks is interested in how their landscapes will evolve and how they can support all varieties of biophysical systems through this evolution. They are about humans letting go.

This objective is exemplified by W’s design at St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary, Alberta. W accentuated the shifting nature of the island, removing static water-protective barriers around the edge and welcoming water flows through the island. The design fosters the emergence of streams and wetlands, which will move over time while designating certain “fixed” areas for human activity. According to Wilks, perhaps expressing her ideal of a designed landscape, “it is a living landscape with smaller human-managed areas set within it.”

St. Patrick’s Island, Calgary, Alberta / W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, ORO

Through their deference to natural systems, projects like St. Patrick’s Island achieve lasting change. These projects, Wilks insists, must enable new growth and development of adaptable systems—not just preservation of existing ones. As she points out, even small projects in this vein show how they can succeed on other sites, encouraging more such efforts to proliferate. Here, especially, the book may prove useful to other landscape architects and designers, who can glean inspiration from W’s projects.

As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and PGAdesign and co-editor of the book Black Landscapes Matter.