Planners Must Now “Anticipate the Unanticipated”

Imagine Austin Growth Concept Map / City of Austin

“The planning practices of the past are inadequate for today’s challenges,” said David Rouse, ASLA, a landscape architect and planner, at the American Planning Association‘s National Planning Conference in San Diego. Rapid technological change, socio-economic inequities, natural resource depletion, and climate change are forcing planning and design professionals to adapt. “How can the practice of planning evolve to be more sustainable and equitable?”

In the 1920s, the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and the Standard City Enabling Act were passed. In the 1960s, the standard 20th century planning model, which focused on land use policy and planning, came into being. In the 1980s, there was a shift to smart growth and “visionary, values-based planning.” In 2010, the American Planning Association began a process of rethinking past planning approaches through its Sustaining Places Initiative, which provided models and standards for how to prioritize sustainability through local planning.

According to Rouse, today’s comprehensive plans require a new 21st century model rooted in four key aspects. First, sustainability, resilience, and equity need to be at the center of all planning decisions. Second, a systems-thinking approach is needed. “A community is a system made up of sub-systems.” Third, any planning effort requires “authentic participation” and true community engagement that can answer the questions: “Where are we headed? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?” And lastly, there must be “accountable implementation,” including priorities for action, funding streams, policies that can guide decision-making, and specified responsibilities.

Rocky Piro, executive director of the Colorado Center for Sustainable Urbanism and former planning director of Denver, said Rouse and himself reviewed hundreds of plans for their new book — The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Communities for the 21st Century. They found that “authentic engagement is foundational” to any new planning effort.

Planning processes must now include an engagement and communications strategy rooted in the issues and values of a community and be designed to reach all segments of a population. Any planning effort in 2022 also needs to be based in an understanding of the “impact of the past on the present.”

A vision statement is needed to kick-start these comprehensive planning efforts — “one with brevity, clarity, and the ability to inspire,” Piro said.

Land-use maps are still an important component of any comprehensive plan but they need to be smarter. In its plan adopted in 2012, Austin, Texas, created a “growth concept map” that includes places and their aspects (see image at top). Aurora, Colorado, included a “place typology” that includes a “sophisticated matrix” and a “place-based approach” in its plan.

Placetype plan / City of Aurora, Colorado

All communities are systems that include natural, built environment, social, economic, health, and regional connection sub-systems.

“Planning for natural systems has come out of the landscape architecture field,” Rouse argued. “Ecosystem planning should now happen in communities and in context with other planning elements instead of piecemeal.”

ASLA 2021 Professional Analysis and Planning Honor Award. Parsons Island Conservation and Regeneration Plan. Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, United States. Mahan Rykiel Associates

Planners and landscape architects need to increasingly plan for land, water, atmospheric, and biodiversity change within communities. And instead of planning for water use and quality alone, an entire watershed approach should also be integrated into comprehensive planning efforts.

The ecosystem component that landscape architects focus on can be integrated with the built environment components that planners focus on. Through the involvement of multiple disciplines, plans can address “land use, character, ecology, mobility, community design, and civic spaces, and public art.”

Other important systems that need to be included in any new comprehensive plan are social systems that improve equity — “the social infrastructure” of communities, including housing and education.

Economic systems also need to be re-thought for the 21st century. “Economic resilience is about creating opportunities for all in a fair and sustainable way. We can move to a circular economy and rely on local assets and regional resources. We need to move away from a linear, throw-away society.”

Health systems need to be factored into any planning effort, and this is not just “about disease prevention, but about healthy transportation and food systems. How we move and interface with the built environment impacts our health.”

There are now many lens — a “climate lens, equity lens, health lens. Can we bring the lenses together?”

Both Rouse and Piro returned to the idea that any planning effort can only happen with real community engagement.

Once the voice of the community in its totality has been considered, then a plan can be developed that results in the revision of regulations, codes, and ordinances to help achieve that plan. The next steps are to shift public and private investments to meet goals, align interests and decision-making processes within communities, and form public, private, and non-profit sector partnerships that can lead implementation.

In the 21st century, planners need to be “prepare communities for change, be proactive, and take an integrated approach instead of just reacting,” Rouse said.

The challenge is that planners are also operating within a “cone of uncertainty.” In the short term, there are tactics that can be used to manage community change, which may be foreseen or unforeseen and therefore disruptive. In the medium term, planners can set strategies and plans. But over the long-term, they will need durable visions. “All of this planning must happen sequentially and simultaneously.”

In their book, Rouse and Piro outline five core themes, including equity and engagement, climate change mitigation and adaptation, systems thinking, people-centered technology, and effective implementation.

“Equity must be interwoven, and an equity lens must be brought to all goals. Climate resilience must be a guiding principle of all planning work. Technology must be harnessed to serve communities. Planning participation is about co-creation with the community,” Rouse said.

“Planning is an art and a science. Our jobs are to anticipate the unanticipated. How can we do it better?” Out of the hundreds of plans that Rouse and Piro reviewed, “we couldn’t find one that did this well. It’s a journey society — and planners — must take. It’s the future of comprehensive planning.”

During the Q&A, one audience member asked whether “top-down, paternalistic comprehensive plans” are a thing of the past. A city comprehensive plan assumes there is one community in agreement, whereas there are many communities with different interests. The antithesis of a comprehensive plan is a neighborhood plan.

Community engagement is critical to forging consensus as is transparency about budgets and timelines, Piro argued. Ensuring grassroots buy-in is the “path to success.” But neighborhood plans need to be integrated with comprehensive plans and implemented in tandem. “You need consistency and coordination.” Ecological, social, and other systems “can’t be addressed in isolation.”

Another audience member wondered how comprehensive plans can address the communities who have been displaced due to gentrification. “How do we plan for who is not there?”

Rouse argued that it’s critical to retain populations by helping them create their own visions. “We can account for the past and systemic racism,” and planners and other design professions’ roles in creating those inequities.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 1-15, 2022)

Lane Closures / Chris Yarzab, CC BY-ND 2.0.

MUSK SEE: Three Reasons Why Congestion Decreases When Cities ‘Delete’ Road Lanes — 05/13/2022, Streetsblog USA
“A wildly inaccurate comment from Elon Musk about the traffic impacts of deleting lanes for drivers is prompting a conversation about the little-known phenomenon of ‘reduced demand’ — and how advocates can better debunk common congestion myths that powerful, but often ill-informed, people continue to promulgate.”

Lawns Are Terrible for the Environment. California’s Water Restrictions May Finally Kill Them — 05/12/2022, Fast Company
“Landscape designers weigh in on how drought conditions could change the look of Southern California — and eventually the rest of the West.”

Ukraine’s ‘Hero River’ Helped Save Kyiv. But What Now for Its Newly Restored Wetlands? — 05/11/2022, The Guardian
“Kyiv repelled Russian forces by opening a Soviet-era dam on the Irpin River. Now, ecologists hope Ukraine’s newest wetlands can survive, or even thrive, after the war.”

Security Features For Outdoor Living Trend In Latest Houzz Survey — 05/10/22, Forbes
“It’s no secret that outdoor living has become a huge trend. ‘It has exploded over the past five years with homeowners desiring to have resort-like backyards,’ declares Reno-based landscape architect and franchisor Ron DuHamel, president of FireSky.

How a Los Angeles Landscape Architecture Firm Is Reclaiming a Hillside for Native Plants — 05/10/2022, Dwell
“Terremoto is spearheading an experimental grassroots project to transform a neglected patch of public land with native species.”

Justice Department Unveils New Environmental Justice Moves (2) — 05/05/2022, Bloomberg Law
“The Department of Justice announced a trio of major environmental justice actions on Thursday, including the launch of a new office and the resurrection of a popular enforcement tool scrapped during the Trump administration.”

A Smarter Urban Design Concept for a Town Decimated by Wildfires — 05/03/2022, Fast Company
“SWA Group—a winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards—is helping Paradise, California, imagine a safer and more sustainable future with a design that buffers the town with parks, athletic fields, and orchards—areas less likely to burn than forests.”

Removing Benches, Blocking Cycle Paths: Why Are Police Interfering in the UK’s Public Spaces? — 05/02/2022, The Guardian
“The Secured by Design initiative is damaging British cities, robbing them of greenery and public amenities while promoting fear.”

New Park Brings Residents of Los Angeles’ Chinatown Together — 05/01/2022, Parks and Recreation Business
“Designed by the landscape architecture and planning firm, AHBE/MIG, Ord and Yale Street Park represents the transformation of a once-vacant, one-acre hillside into a new pocket neighborhood park for the community.”

The Green New Deal: What’s Next for Landscape Architects?

“Renew Calumet” / wkshp/bluemarble

By wkshp/bluemarble

A Green New Deal means designers can live up to their potential to address the wicked problems of our time. Landscape architects, planners, and architects may be familiar with the Green New Deal Superstudio, which was a call for designers to “spatially manifest” the Green New Deal, or to imagine projects centering jobs, justice and decarbonization.

The Superstudio marks an inflection point for landscape architecture. Grounded in policy and the context of climate change and social unrest, the Superstudio is the landscape architecture community’s public acknowledgement that our work is deeply intertwined with politics.

As a collective of young practitioners, we understand the significance of the Green New Deal conversation happening within and outside of our profession. ASLA and the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) have embraced the Green New Deal, and organized students and practitioners to imagine its tangible implications within the built environment. These steps represent real action towards the shift in practice that Billy Fleming, ASLA, the Wilks Family Director at the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, called for in his 2019 article, Design and the Green New Deal. Like Fleming and the profession’s organizations, we recognize a shift that needs to happen if landscape architecture is to stand a chance.

It is crucial for landscape architecture to change if we are to have a meaningful contribution toward a habitable future. As Superstudio participants, Wkshp, a team of emerging professionals, viewed the Superstudio as a way to imagine both future projects and adapted practice.

For us, the Superstudio was fulfilling in several ways. With limited experience in professional practice, we found a shared sentiment that our professional experiences were not in complete alignment with what we were sold in school – a sometimes romanticized version of our personal career paths and the impact they will have. After a couple of years in practice, we have maintained faith in the potential of landscape architecture to make large-scale change. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Superstudio was that it prompted us to make space to rekindle our passions and sense of purpose, in ways that often don’t fit into typical modes of practice.

“Understanding the GND through Landscape Architecture” / wkshp/bluemarble

What exactly doesn’t fit into existing practice and why? While developing our Superstudio submission, our time was dedicated to identifying barriers to implementation and asking questions. Repeatedly, we were brought back to the same power dilemmas, which are beyond the scope of the typical landscape architecture project, but were centered in our Superstudio work: structural racism, a patriarchal society, colonialism, severe economic inequity, and environmental injustice, among others.

“Towards a Just Transition — Community Activist in the Calumet Region” / wkshp/bluemarble

Working under the framework of the Green New Deal was liberating – it meant that we could transcend the constraints of the current market, and a model of practice formulated to serve it. It allowed us to imagine design processes and projects to serve geographies and communities that have been economically, socially, and environmentally abandoned, while considering how we can work differently.

We imagine a culture that has moved beyond megalomania, utopianism, and individualism. In the Superstudio, we find the seeds of a collaborative realism and inclusive organizing that we are now working to scale and ground. So, a Green New Deal project is not necessarily a “new project” in its built form, but the where, how, and for whom represent a practice transformed. The Green New Deal creates living infrastructure in places that need it but can’t afford it, repairing landscapes that have been endlessly extracted from, preparing underserved communities for unpredictable futures, with an emphasis that it will all be co-designed. This is a new means and mode of practice — one of which does not yet exist, but desperately needs to.

The Superstudio was an experiment in process, just as much as it was a design project. wkshp/bluemarble, a non-hierarchical collective with collaborators from multiple firms working together across three time zones, embodied this ethos throughout. We understand that ethics of flexible leadership and constant growth are critical for facing the challenges of our generation.

“Renew Calumet” / wkshp/bluemarble

The Modernist approach exemplified by architects Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright is a deeply flawed, failed model. We cannot rely on individuals to save the planet. In the same vein, we must stop placing individuals on a pedestal within design culture as a whole. Almost nothing in our field is created — or even conceived — by a single individual, and it’s time to acknowledge the power of a team as well as elevate the power of the ideas, rather than praise a single person. On this note, we reject destructive criticism by those in power within our tiny profession. Young designers need support, especially those willing to dedicate a career (or even one year as a thought experiment) to re-conceiving our collective future.

With this transformational spirit, the Superstudio summit, Grounding the Green New Deal, was an opportunity to begin imagining next steps with fellow Superstudio participants and leaders. The summit organized by LAF, with the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, ASLA, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., featured a curated selection of projects and speakers from practice, policy, and advocacy. The summit which was thought-provoking, informative, and beautifully executed, igniting a series of deep reflections.

Both the immediate and more distant futures of the profession were on display at the summit. For those seeking spark notes on advancing jobs justice and decarbonization, here are some general themes we came away with:

  • Connect with and lend support to organizers, center the visions of frontline communities, and grapple with and address the relationship between ourselves, our communities, and our professions to colonialism, racism, and structural inequalities.
  • Gain a better understanding of both power and implementation pathways, both locally and nationally, so you can make things happen now.
  • Concurrently work to advance policies like the GND that aim to create change at scale in the future, work to change institutions that hold power, and when working with developers and politicians make them think that your transformative idea is their idea.
  • Above all, to make a real impact, we need to get organized and plan our actions.

We were especially inspired by the work and vision of organizers such as Colette Pichon Battle, Esq., the executive director of Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, an organization that is actively bringing justice to front line communities in the Gulf Coast Region, and represents the type of organization that designers could support in projects akin to the Green New Deal. The voices of those with public sector experience stood out as well, such as Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, former Commissioner of New York City Parks & Recreation department. These panelists shared their strategies of working within existing institutions to produce projects embodying the pace, scale, and justice-orientation of the Green New Deal in the now.

Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, and Fleming, both key figures in the Superstudio and the profession at large, provided essential framing through presentations that served as a prompt for advocacy and guide for implementation.

We felt that the lack of organized dialogue among the mass of Superstudio participants was a missed opportunity, and that the format of the summit, while inspiring, felt devoid of the popular, inclusive spirit of the Superstudio. Some challenges – mostly of the “how do I start doing this right now?” variety – still need further testing in the real world. For example, once we connect with community organizers, are we prepared to work differently from our normal practice? Can this work happen at scale outside of academic spaces? How does this work get done where there isn’t an existing implementation structure, or the structure cannot transcend existing forms of development? How do we scale up this transformative practice outside of the most populous, resource-rich regions of the country?

Urgency is in the air. The summit must be the beginning of a conversation, yes, but most importantly must further contribute to radical action both within and beyond the field locally and globally. Now is the time for landscape architecture to evolve.

Here are our next steps: capacity building, organizing, and, most critically, doubling down on the collective imagination that the Superstudio so radically and meaningfully engaged.

wkshp/bluemarble is a team of emerging professionals working for transformations within practice and the world at large.

Adriana Hernández Aguirre, Associate ASLA, Coleman & Associates
Maddie Clark, Design Workshop
Olivia Pinner, Associate ASLA, SWA
Adam Scott, PLA, Associate ASLA, SWA
Nicholas Zurlini, Associate ASLA, GGLO

Designing Decarbonization, Jobs, and Justice (Part II)

Grounding the Green New Deal / Allison Shelley/Landscape Architecture Foundation

“The Green New Deal Superstudio models a collective form of practice. We have a foot in the world now, but can imagine a new future,” said Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, during the start of the second panel of Grounding the Green New Deal, a summit organized by the Landscape Architecture Foundation at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

This new future must be envisioned quickly, Orff argued, because humanity has “already crossed the 1.5 C temperature increase” that will unleash destructive climate impacts. “We need to anticipate that future and act now.” And referring to the first panel of the summit, she argued that while interest in climate justice is expanding and designers are partnering with more marginalized communities, landscape architects must accelerate efforts to “co-create, co-facilitate, and co-repair.”

At the same time, Orff cautioned that landscape architecture projects take a long time. “Ten years is nothing in the built environment.” There is simply no time to build new institutions from scratch to address the climate and biodiversity crises. “We must work within the parameters that exist. Given the timescale, we must advocate for radical change within the institutions we have.” She called for “moving fast, but at the speed of trust.”

In a panel discussion, a mix of landscape architects, philanthropists, policymakers, and planners then delved into how to advance decarbonization, jobs, and justice through landscape architecture practice. These are the three tenets of the 2019 Green New Deal Congressional legislative proposal and the Superstudio organized by LAF, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, ASLA, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA).

Grounding the Green New Deal / Allison Shelley/Landscape Architecture Foundation

Alexa Bush, a program officer with the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit office, who also has a master’s of landscape architecture degree from the University of Virginia, said she shifted from project work at firms to the Detroit city government and then to the foundation sector, because “decision making happens at the local level. How do I enable design? It’s through local government.” And with the philanthropic sector, which works closely with local governments, “it’s about assembling a blend of funds and partners. We can help make the tables where decisions happen.”

She added that “the strength of landscape architects is system thinking. I can call in experts when needed. Landscape architects are the glue in the system and can build the team.”

For Kevin Bush (not related to Alexa), deputy assistant secretary for grant programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), one of the best ways for landscape architects to advance their ambitious policy goals is to “glob onto existing local projects.”

The reality, he argued, is that “local governments are having the worst time in history.” Overrun with demands related to COVID-19, many local governments face major challenges in planning for long-term climate adaptation. “Design professions should be empathetic about the constrained realities.”

It’s important to find what funds are coming through state and federal pipelines to local projects and “latch onto them.” Otherwise, landscape architects can spend decades planning visionary projects that may not come to fruition.

“To design for other people’s problems we need to speak other people’s languages. When we talk about housing, we shouldn’t say units, but homes,” argued Jess Zimbabwe, executive director of Environmental Works in Seattle. “When the teamsters went on strike here in Seattle, there was widespread irritation at them among design professionals. But if they had living wages and affordable housing, we wouldn’t have these problems.”

Mitchell Silver, Hon. ASLA, former commissioner of New York City Parks & Recreation and now a vice president with McAdams, said that in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, he was often asked: “How are you doing? What can I do to help?”

He said the most important step landscape architects, planners, and other designers can take is to listen. Planners and designers are tasked with creating places of healing and joy. But that is impossible without “deep understanding.” Anytime he visits any place, he always checks in with himself. “Do I feel welcome? If I don’t, I won’t come back.” Designers have to get this right for more people.

“When working with African American communities, it’s really important to listen,” said Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder of Studio-MLA. She said her firm is a highly inclusive office, with multiple cultures represented. The past year has been a “charged, emotional time for everyone.” But she feels that as a landscape architect, “it’s important to give back; it’s an obligation.”

Lehrer described how her complex, multi-functional projects, like the new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, are a result of deliberative processes. The stadium, which leveraged a public-private partnership to create a 6-acre lake and 50-acre park, was led by Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts. “There was never more than 12 people in any meeting.” Meetings were designed so that each person could bring up issues to resolve; and then future meetings would resolve new issues.

SoFi stadium and park / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

At the local level, “if you think something is important, than the process needs to be simplified,” Silver said. As part of New York City’s Community Parks Initiative, the city’s equitable parks plan, Silver’s department completed 850 projects in seven years, redesigning parks in underserved communities. “Our goal was to streamline projects.”

Van Alst Playground in Queens was the first completed Community Parks Initiative project in 2017 / Malcolm Pinckney/NYC Parks, via Planning.org

To further break down fragmented, siloed government, Silver also called for cities to create a “czar of the public realm” who can cross all departments that impact citizens. And climate-related infrastructure should be governed by a senior role. Resilience should be overarching. “Fragmented government leads to fragmented results.”

“We must also look beyond borders.” Climate, ecological, and biodiversity issues cross governmental jurisdictions, Lehrer argued, and require new coalitions of local organizations. She thought the focus of the Green New Deal Superstudio was too U.S. centric.

In closing remarks, Billy Fleming, ASLA, the Wilks Family Director at the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and Roxanne Blackwell, Hon. ASLA, director of governmental affairs at ASLA, noted that positive change takes time, particularly at the national level, but landscape architects have had significant wins.

“30 to 50 years ago, the idea of green infrastructure for stormwater management was a foreign idea,” Fleming said. “Not many years ago, the idea of Complete Streets was radical,” Blackwell argued. “But with persistence and patience,” landscape architects have advanced their policy goals. The recently passed Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act is a prime example, with hundreds of billions for green infrastructure and water management, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and public lands.

A key way forward for landscape architects is to move from a “transactional to a transformational approach” with communities, argued Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at NC State University. “Local knowledge is enriching and yields different kinds of projects and ideas that can lead to innovation.”

Read Part I

Lets Broaden the Definition of Environmental Justice

Protesters gather at Black Lives Plaza, the intersection of I and 16 Streets / Brian Hustvedt-Camacho

By Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA

Tragedy, protest, insurrection, and political turmoil have led to a renewed awareness of racial injustice and democratic instability. These issues create new challenges for users and designers of public spaces in America. Cultural spasms have resulted in contested public spaces — sites of killings, protests in streets and parks, and forgotten burial grounds. These spaces need a new form of environmental justice.

While environmental justice is most often viewed from the perspective of the impacts of pollution on people, land, water, and air, the spaces stained by the killing of Black Americans and soiled by a history of slavery and white supremacy require environmental justice too. Because they also disproportionately affect Black and brown communities.

As a result, landscape architects, architects, urban designers, and planners are now at the center of a shifting racial, political, and spatial dialogue. Designers are called to examine their place in a country built on systemic racism. There are new opportunities to defeat bias and work toward spatial equity as “designer citizens.”

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota changed the American and global discourse on race and justice. The protests that followed this tragic event set in motion the removal of Confederate monuments and marches at the White House. There were multicultural marches against police brutality and extensive grassroots and academic discussions about racism in America. There are far more Black victims of racism at the hands of police, but the brutal imagery of George Floyd’s murder sparked a collective humanity within the American and global public.

Due to the unnecessary death of yet another Black man, the veil of white supremacy and entitlement has been again uncovered. The outpouring of support was swift and protest marches included people of all colors for the first time in decades. However, the ferocity of the government’s response in the form of more police brutality, protester arrests, and the labeling of the Black Lives Matters (BLM) organization as a negative, socialist, left-wing group were just as swift.

Protest signs posted at Lafayette Park during BLM protest in June 2020 / Brian Hustvedt-Camacho

During protests in Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser fought this false narrative about BLM by designating the Black Lives Matter Plaza as a multi-block-long street mural directly in the face of the White House. The plaza, in a sense, has become one of the first physical protest responses in the form of public art and place. Mayor Bowser reflected on her reason for taking this action. “We had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city. That message is to the American people that Black lives matter, Black humanity matters, and we as a city raise that up.”

Black Lives Matter Plaza / Photo By Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call via AP Images, Assisted by City of DC

The dialogue that arose from George Floyd’s murder has included public protest rights, public space creation and appropriation, and, most importantly, the disposition of Confederate monuments. Black Lives Matter Plaza and Confederate monuments led to a robust discussion within the landscape architecture, architecture, and planning professions concerning race and place. How does one memorialize places of protest and also de-memorialize places of incomplete historical interpretation?

Environmental justice typically involves reducing the inequitable distribution of pollutants and hazards in communities of color. But we need to recognize that police killings and other homicides also disproportionately impact communities of color. A broader definition of environmental justice can then also include efforts to memorialize tragic events in public spaces and secure and honor these spaces. While designs for these issues will continue to evolve, the need to use public space to advance environmental justice will never change. There will always be a need to better represent a true reading of history.

In a Smithsonian article, Peter Schwartzstein speaks of the connections between urban space and successful public protest. He suggest that “what’s notable, perhaps, about the ongoing protests in the U.S. and many [countries] abroad is the extent to which differing urban designs can determine a movement’s success and sometimes even propel different outcomes for the same grievances.” He further speaks of the role of designers and the history of public space. He indicates that “after decades of tightening constraints, in which public space has shrunk, shifted, or vanished, scholars suggest that urban design itself will only become even more of a protest influence in the coming years.”

On the other hand, the honest recording of history cannot be subjected to changing facts. Historians such as Carl Becker suggest “that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.” In this sense, landscape architects can be advocates of a more complete history in the design and redesign of public spaces. In the case of Confederate monuments, the authentic history is clear and not fluid.

Karen L. Fox clarifies this authenticity argument in The New York Times, when she states that “the heyday of monument building, between 1890 and 1920, was also a time of extreme racial violence, as Southern whites pushed back against what little progress had been made by African-Americans in the decades after the Civil War. As monuments went up, so did the bodies of black men, women, and children during a long rash of lynching.”

Two projects reflect how environmental justice can be achieved for places where loss have been experienced. The Tamir Rice Memorial in Cleveland, Ohio illustrates how a space can evoke memory. The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, Virginia illustrates how a space can acknowledge slavery and servitude.

These contemporary projects highlight the challenges ahead for designers as America deals with police violence, protest, a history of systemic racism, and other social issues. The U.S. Capitol Grounds is the next test facing landscape architects, because of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol and the need for increased security.

A Memorial of Protest and Pain

Changing understandings of social, cultural, and political injustice provide new opportunities for landscape architects to participate as citizens. The increased awareness of racial injustice creates opportunity for landscape architects to acknowledge this systemic problem that disproportionately affects Black and brown communities. The deaths that occur from these police incidents leave not only broken families and communities, but also places and spaces of pain and conflict. The challenge for designers is how to create spaces that acknowledge the life of those killed, respect the context of the place, speak to racial injustice, and create a sense of resolution.

The November 22, 2014 death of Tamir Rice by police officers in Cleveland is a questionable incident that did not result in charges against the police officers involved. An article in The New York Times by reporters Shaila Dewan and Richard A. Oppel, Jr. poignantly describe Tamir’s playful visit to the park with a friend, including the toy airsoft-style gun he carried.

After a neighbor called police to report a child in the park with a gun, which the caller described as perhaps a toy gun, Dewan and Oppel indicate that “with the gun tucked away, he walked to the edge of the gazebo. He might have been wandering aimlessly, or he might have been attracted by the sight of a squad car barreling across the lawn. Seconds later, the boy lay dying from a police officer’s bullet…But the boy, Tamir Rice, was only 12.” The death of this Black child validates the protest that followed and justifies the memorial that his mother worked so hard to realize.

Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, has since created the Tamir Rice Foundation to advance social justice and remember her son through a memorial within the Frank E. Cudell Recreation Center and park area. The memorial will be located at the site of the gazebo where Tamir was killed. These memorials are becoming far too common, but they can create a place or remembrance within a new type of landscape.

In 2020, the Tamir Rice Memorial project began moving quickly with the solicitation for designers and the hiring of the Black landscape architecture firm, Design Jones, LLC, to design the memorial. The Cleveland-based firm Deru Landscape Architecture is the team landscape architect of record. Samaria Rice and her daughter, Tajai, as well as community members, were fully engaged in the development of all memorial design concepts.

As outlined by the design team, “the Tamir Rice Memorial makes sacred a space of devastating injustice in the remembrance of a vibrant young Black child full of possibilities. It uses the forms of the butterfly and the box to signify what Tamir was, the flight of freedom, and what society assigned for him, the darkness of confinement.” The heart of the memorial is an engraved granite stone with Tamir’s image and text that memorializes his life. The butterfly garden was originally built with the help of Tamir’s sister, Tajai, and her friends as a 2016 memorial to her brother. Funding for the garden was provided by the Cleveland City Council.

The pathway leading to this memorial stone embodies the evolution of Tamir’s life and incorporates and revitalizes the existing butterfly garden, which also becomes a creative beginning to the memorial space. The curved pathway and dry creek establish a sustainable mitigation area for stormwater runoff. As the years pass, there will be time to understand if and how this memorial heals a community and, in particular, a family that remains in pain.

Tamir Rice Memorial Site Plan / Design Jones, LLC
Tamir Rice Memorial Perspective view of the design selected by the Rice Family / Design Jones, LLC

The original gazebo where Tamir was killed was dismantled and moved to Chicago with the assistance of the Rebuild Foundation. Artist and activist Theaster Gates, the CEO and founder of the foundation, was instrumental in assisting Samaria Rice with this pivotal relocation and memorial.

“The reconstructed gazebo with the original concrete picnic table now sits on the north lawn of 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., rededicated as a platform, a stage, a prospect from which to reckon with, argue over, and jointly heal,” said Adam Green, associate professor at the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture in The Chicago Tribune. A spokesman for the Rice family has indicated that the Chicago gazebo site will not be its final location: “the gazebo [is] going back to Cleveland and finding a permanent home.”

Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, principal at Design Jones LLC and professor and director of landscape architecture at University of Texas at Arlington, states that “I was inspired and moved by Samaria Rice’s speaking to me of the beauty of her son and the horrific tragedy of this event. Her words clearly shaped my hand while designing the memorial.”

A Memorial of Acknowledgement

The murder of George Floyd not only created a global racial justice protest movement, but also reignited the decades long debate over how to address the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols around the country. However, history is clear relating to why Confederate monuments exist and why monument removals are necessary. Southern pride is most often used as the rationale for not removing Confederate monuments.

However, Keisha Blain, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, suggest that these defenders “fail to acknowledge that Confederate monuments and symbols emerged in an effort to intimidate Black Americans and uphold a revisionist-and racist-version of history. In effect, these monuments and symbols already do the work of erasing history — the very thing their defenders now accuse protesters of doing by demanding their removal.”

Against the backdrop of a Unite the Right rally on August 11-12, 2017 organized by white supremacist protesting the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, a team of designers and community members were busy at work designing the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA.

The juxtaposition of these two activities — a revisionist protest to preserve remnants of the Confederacy and a historical acknowledgement of slavery’s damages to Black Americans — is striking. During the Unite the Right rally, there were clashes between the protesters, which resulted in the tragic death of 32-year old woman, Heather D. Heyer, a Charlottesville resident, by an irate white supremacist driving through a crowd of protesters. Conversely, the enslaved laborers memorial team efforts resulted in the April 11, 2020 dedication of a memorial that acknowledges the lives of enslaved laborers who were owned and rented by UVA.

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers stands in honor and recognition of a buried history that has been honestly brought to the surface and stands in stark contrast to the General Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park. The memorial was designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, including Eric Höweler, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Meejin Yoon, Dean at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. They collaborated with historian and designer Dr. Mabel O. Wilson, professor at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and founder of Studio&. They also collaborated with Gregg Bleam, FASLA, a landscape architect, community facilitator Dr. Frank Dukes, and artist Eto Otitigbe.

The memorial responds to the fraught history of UVA with an open form, a sweeping gesture in stone that is welcoming and inclusive as if waiting for the visitor to complete the memorial. It is a form that is open in terms of meaning, alluding to the African ”ring shout” and is space of shelter and gathering.

Aerial view of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and UVA Grounds / Alan Karchmer, Courtesy: Höweler + Yoon Architecture

“The Memorial is also open ended in that it is unfinished, with the list of names remaining conspicuously incomplete. The unfinished nature of the memorial also alludes to the historic legacy of slavery and the ongoing work in the present that needs to be done to address questions of bias and anti-Black racism today,” said Eric Höweler. This memorial reminds us that history may be reinterpreted based on biases. But the true reading of history guards against revisionist rhetoric and personal bias.

The discussion of acknowledging systemic racism and the ownership and sale of slaves to sustain personal or institutional wealth was started within the academy. Brown University, Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UVA, and other universities have led this reconciliation with historical reviews and action plans, which is the beginning of a model for corporations, cities, and other seats of power.

In 2013, Dr. Marcus Martin, Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity at UVA, proposed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University to further study the history of slave ownership by the university. The Commission’s core goal was to “explore and report on UVA’s historical relationship with slavery, highlighting opportunities for recognition and commemoration.”

The design team described this history in this powerful statement:

“An estimated 4,000 enslaved persons worked on the Grounds of UVA between 1817 and 1865, when the Union Army liberated the enslaved of Albermarle County. Owned and rented by the University, they created and maintained its famous grounds, pavilions, and Rotunda. The memorial’s commemorative forms and historical inscriptions acknowledge the dualities of enslavement — the pain of bondage and hope for the future. It celebrates the bonds of community that nurtured resistance and resilience to the dehumanizing violence that shaped the everyday experience of enslaved life at UVA. In doing so, the memorial creates a vital public place to understand, learn, and remember their contribution to the University.”

Visitors at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers / Alan Karchmer, Courtesy: Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Visitors at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers / Alan Karchmer, Courtesy: Höweler + Yoon Architecture

This particular memorial in the front yard of Thomas Jefferson’s vision is indeed environmental justice on a grand scale. The project is bold, and its form grounds the memorial in a way that creates a sense the circular form rises from the Earth as the voice of the forgotten slave laborers.

As Dr. Mabel Wilson at Columbia University states in the team design statement, “this memorial confronts a campus whose very architecture was conceived to express the highest aspirations of our democratic society yet, at the same time, was literally designed to obscure the oppression of the enslaved individuals who realized Jefferson’s vision and sustained life on campus for nearly 50 years. [The Memorial] provides a much-needed space for active engagement with the grim reality of slavery and systemic racism, the repercussions of which the nation is still wrestling with today.”

Details of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers inner wall, with names and memory marks / Alan Karchmer, Courtesy: Höweler + Yoon Architecture

The Future

Only eight months after George Floyd’s murder on May 25, the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. became another shocking bookend to the May 25 incident, creating a cultural tsunami. Americans and the world have awakened to the reality that the authenticity of democracy in the country is, in fact, a conceit. There is an inauthenticity of citizenship that again forces America to acknowledge its past and the present history of racial injustices.

David Brooks, a columnist with The New York Times, reflected on January 6 in terms of morality when he writes “human beings exist at moral dimensions both too lofty and more savage than the contemporary American mind normally considers. The mob that invaded that building [the Capitol] Wednesday exposed the abyss. This week wasn’t just an atrocity, it was a glimpse into an atavistic nativism that always threatens to grip the American soul. The rampage reminded us that if Black people had done this, the hallways would be red with blood.” Brooks provides a nuanced argument that even when there is democratic protest by a mostly Black group, as opposed to undemocratic insurrection by a mostly white group, there is inequality and obvious bias.

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol presents yet another spatial challenge — how to protect the Capitol and also provide a space of democratic movement for Americans. For many months, the U.S. Capitol Police took the position that the seven-foot-high fencing should stay in place. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and many Congressional Representatives, along with ASLA, successfully argued that the fences were undemocratic. There is no doubt that landscape architects will be called into creative action to craft a long-term spatial mediation.

The Tamir Rice Memorial and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA are linked. They seek to resolve issues of race and place, specifically addressing the lives of Black Americans. These places continue to bring attention and a degree of reconciliation to police violence and the buried history of slavery in America. As these projects show, there is a great need to design more solutions to racial injustice. Similar sites will only increase in number, requiring the need to sensitively provide creative solutions that uplift and educate the public.

January 6 shows us that environmental justice related to race and space will be dominant for some time to come. This new environmental justice offers landscape architects opportunities to demonstrate their citizenship through a honest acknowledgment of the continuing racial and spatial disparities and ugly racial history of the United States. If we want to design more democratic public spaces across America, we must pledge to achieve authenticity rooted in history and facts.

Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA, is cofounder and principal of PUSH studio in Washington, D.C., and founder and former president of the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN). His landscape architecture projects include garden designs, urban waterfronts, community redevelopment, playgrounds and memorial monument design. He has directed graduate landscape architecture programs at two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — Florida A&M University and Morgan State University.

This article is adapted and reprinted by permission of Avenues, a publication of the Urban Design Committee of the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Inglewood’s New SoFi Stadium Upends the Old Sports Arena Model

SoFi stadium with Hollywood Park lake and park in foreground / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

Nestled between the runways of Los Angeles International Airport, the bold SoFi Stadium by landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA and architecture firm HKS sets a new standard for sports arenas, breaking the conventional “suburban fortress” model by opening up the arena to the sky, air, and nature, and blurring the lines between stadium, botanical garden, and public park. The new home of both the Rams and Chargers NFL teams will be highlighted on a national stage during Super Bowl LVI, but it is also a place to visit even if you have no interest in football.

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

“It’s all about how a stadium becomes part of a landscape and the landscape becomes part of the stadium,” said Mia Lehrer, FASLA, founder and president of Studio-MLA, which recently won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. “We’re honored to help imagine this extensive park and public district alongside the people of Inglewood, validating how sports stadiums inherently democratize space and bring people together.”

Kush Parekh, ASLA, associate principal at Studio-MLA, said this $5 billion mega-project is truly transformational because it’s rooted in the vision of the Inglewood community, which is predominantly Black and Latinx.

The nearly 300-acre site was once the Hollywood Park racetrack. When the city decided to redevelop the site as an urban infill project and the developers Kroenke Sports & Entertainment and Wilson Meany took on the project, Studio-MLA, HKS, and Hart Howerton began a process of community engagement as part of a planning process for a new Hollywood Park mixed-use district.

They discovered the racetrack had an artificial lake and green space at its center that the community appreciated and often used for events such as flower shows. When the community was asked what they hoped for in a new development, they said “a lake and green space,” Parekh explained.

The oceans of parking lots that had once surrounded the racetrack were also one of the few open spaces available to the community, which is among the most underserved in terms of access to green space, trees, and shade. “Parents would take their kids there to teach them to ride bikes,” Parekh said. The barren, uninviting parking lots had also become a walking and jogging destination, simply because there were so few other options.

Working with the community, Studio-MLA began focusing on how to insert a lake into the site. “We wanted to bring the lake back, but it couldn’t just be recreational; it needed to be performative.” So Lehrer and team had an idea: a new lake could store water to irrigate a new botanical, sustainable landscape. But given how intermittent rainfall is in Southern California, they realized multiple water sources were needed for both the long, dry season, and the short, inundating ones.

Studio-MLA discovered the site had access to recycled water from the West Basin Municipal Water District facility that could be used to partially fill the lake in the dry season. First, the water would need to be chemically treated, so the team designed a custom filtration process with PACE Engineering. To fine-tune these systems, the design and engineering teams built a temporary laboratory on site.

In the wet season, when flash floods are a risk, the lake would be designed to handle all the stormwater run-off from the stadium, parking lots, and the 5-million square feet of surrounding retail, residential, and commercial buildings planned as part of Hollywood Park.

Their case to the developer was either pay a high amount to pipe stormwater to the Pacific Ocean and also pay hefty additional stormwater fees, or “mitigate stormwater on site and create a public amenity,” Parekh said. “The lake checked a lot of boxes. It was a win-win situation.” The development team was also “firmly committed to a sustainable approach.”

Given the site’s proximity to the Los Angeles airport, the stadium needed to be buried 100 feet into the ground to avoid the flight paths of planes. Digging down left huge amounts of soil that Studio-MLA then leveraged to subtly lift up the edges of the entire site and regrade to divert stormwater through a series of drains and pipes that daylight at the constructed lake. A planned constructed arroyo (river) that will connect with another park with sports facilities at the east end of the site will also eventually steer run-off to the lake.

Hollywood Park stormwater management concept / Studio-MLA

To treat both the recycled water and stormwater run-off, the constructed 6-acre lake also includes layers of natural and mechanical solutions. A series of wetlands filter out contaminants, then a filtration and pump system handle the rest of the purification needed to reuse 26 million gallons of water annually for irrigation.

Hollywood Park Lake / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA
Hollywood Park Lake / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

With a water source in place, there was now a way to substantially green the indoor-outdoor SoFi stadium. Landscape was key to making the experience more “human,” Parekh said. Instead of feeling like “you are going down into a hole in the ground,” Studio-MLA designed inviting landscape canyons that provide an entry point to the arena stands. “The canyons allow for air, light, and views of the landscape from within the stadium.”

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA
SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA
SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

For Lehrer, Parekh, and the Studio-MLA team, this decade-long project has been a labor of love. “This project shows what landscape architecture can do for sports. Our goal was to make everyone completely comfortable there on a human level,” Parekh said.

He added that the integrated architecture and landscape architecture was the result of “collaboration from the beginning” between Studio-MLA and HKS, along with PACE, Fluidity Design Consultants, civil engineer David Evans and Associates, and contractors Turner and AECOM Hunt. Studio-MLA brought prior experience designing the landscapes of Dodger and Banc of California Stadiums, also in Los Angeles, but the entire design team agreed on the need to “change the paradigm of the stadium model” by further mixing public plazas and parks with the stadium structure.

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

The 28-acre sloping canopy of the stadium also covers two other spaces — the new YouTube Theater, a flexible event space that can hold 7,000, and the American Airlines Plaza, a covered yet airy space that can hold 15,000. The architecture and landscape architecture worked together to ensure this place won’t just be used for big NFL games and then sit empty but offers a variety of place for year-round events.

The 25 acres of open green space alone will also serve as a community draw. The public park and diverse landscape features 5,000 newly-planted native and climate-appropriate trees from Southern California and similar Mediterranean biomes, including Palm, Sycamore, and Evergreen trees. Plants that would do well in California’s desert, upper and low montane, and riparian ecosystems are found in various zones of the stadium landscape and adjacent park, which includes the first segment of the planned arroyo.

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA
Arroyo at Hollywood Lake Park / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

The design team crafted fully accessible plazas with organic planter forms, along with ribbon fences that guide visitors during big game days. “We tried to incorporate the gates and fences in a beautiful, sculptural way,” Parekh said.

SoFi stadium landscape / copyright Craig Collins, courtesy of Studio-MLA

This project is just the first phase of many for the Hollywood Park district. Studio-MLA laid the groundwork for natural infrastructure, with a promenade drawing visitors in from the west, and the arroyo trail that can lead to another park on the east. The firm has already designed the landscape for the adjacent NFL offices and retail district. Other developers may also take on sections of the development.

Hollywood Park district / Studio-MLA

For Inglewood, the new SoFi stadium and Hollywood Park redevelopment plan will change the narrative for an underserved community that was recently on the verge of bankruptcy. “Inglewood was once known as the city of champions,” Parekh said, but losing the Lakers NBA team to the Crypto.com Arena in downtown Los Angeles in 1999 was a blow. As part of the Super Bowl halftime show, Los Angeles hip-hop legends Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Dr. Dre will join Eminem and Mary J. Blige in shining a light on Inglewood, which has its own rich hip-hop scene.

There are ongoing concerns that the stadium and district will further gentrify the community, as has occurred in other Black and Latinx communities in Los Angeles in recent years. Along with tech investment in neighboring communities, the stadium has acted as a catalyst for rising home values and increased rents. An upswell from residents led the city to pass a rent control law in 2019 to stop runaway annual rent increases of up to 100 percent and provide relocation support. But long-time Mayor James T. Butts Jr. of Inglewood, argues that the benefits of the development — more green space and thousands of new local construction and retail jobs — will help transform Inglewood from a struggling community into a growing one. A Star Trek fan, he calls the Hollywood Park district a “genesis device.

A new Inglewood stop on the $2 billion, 8.5-mile-long LAX-Crenshaw light rail line expected to open later this year will also lead to further investment and concerns. Lehrer and her team have partnered with the historically Black community of Crenshaw to “celebrate Black Los Angeles” and its history through a new linear park connected to the light rail line.

Interview with Sadafumi Uchiyama: Designing Peace and Harmony

Sadafumi Uchiyama / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

Sadafumi (Sada) Uchiyama, ASLA, is the Chief Curator and Director of the International Japanese Garden Training Center at the Portland Japanese Garden. Uchiyama is a third-generation Japanese gardener from southern Japan, where his family has been involved in gardening for over a century. In addition to his background as a gardener born and trained in Japan, Uchiyama is also a registered landscape architect in Oregon and California, with Bachelor’s and Master’s of Landscape Architecture degrees from the University of Illinois.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville.

The mission of the Portland Japanese Garden is “inspiring peace and harmony.” The Garden identifies itself as a place of inclusion, anti-racism, and cultural understanding. How has the garden advanced these goals throughout its history? How have these goals taken form in the landscape?

It’s not what we do, but who we are and how we exist. We take a passive approach, but that doesn’t mean we don’t contribute to these goals.

There’s no prescription for how to enjoy the garden. Typically, a tour involves listening to what the guide is talking about, but we intentionally do not do that and only offer basic guidance. Our tours are very quiet. We just answer questions. We leave everything up to the visitors, because they have their own reasons for coming to the garden. It could be for tourism or because someone lost a loved one or had a new baby.

We don’t prescribe but be there all the time in the same way. We listen and then if a visitor chooses, we strike up a conversation. We have conversations that may be difficult, but we listen and talk.

We see our Japanese garden as a depository of all kinds of emotions. There’s not much signage and interpretation. Each visitor comes with a bag full of things or nothing. And then when the conversations start, we are ready to engage.

Everyone is a human being. Language, cultural background, and ethnicity doesn’t matter. We are accepting. We welcome the human being. We provide the essential experience of being a human being in harmony with nature. We try to bring human beings closer to that harmony.

When Nobuo Matsunaga, former ambassador of Japan to the U.S. visited Portland Japanese Garden, he proclaimed it to be “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of Japan.” Some 300 Japanese gardens were designed in the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II to help heal the relationship between the countries and create understanding. What makes the Portland Japanese Garden so beloved in Japan and the U.S.?

Well, it took 60 years at this point. You can imagine how bumpy the relationship was with the city just barely 10 years after the war. But we believed in the power of the garden. We owe a lot to local people, the community. We still define ourselves as caretakers of the garden for the community, which has been our tradition. Portland and the people of the city made the garden possible.

Instead of trying to overcome the differences, we embrace similarities. There are so many similarities between the Pacific Northwest and Japan. The climate is one thing. The hills, beautiful streams and rivers; that’s what Portlanders and Oregonians embrace. There was a natural acceptance of what is Japanese because it wasn’t totally foreign. We are a Japanese garden in the Pacific Northwest forest.

Designed in 1963 by Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University, the garden combines eight different Japanese garden styles. What are these styles and what do they signify? How do they come together as a whole?

Professor Tono was clear from the get-go why he designed the garden. It’s really nothing but education in a broader sense: community education. He didn’t intend to create a masterpiece, but wanted to offer an introductory range of gardens.

That approach led to his original five gardens. Normally, when we design Japanese gardens, there is usually one theme or type, but he intentionally showed the spectrum of gardens, all different but what we call Japanese gardens. He designed a strolling pond garden, sand and stone garden, flat garden, tea garden, and natural garden, then we added a few, including through the recent Cultural Crossing expansion.

Strolling pond garden at Portland Japanese Garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden
Tea garden at Portland Japanese Garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden
Natural garden at Portland Japanese Garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

We are very conscious about not copying or recreating the classic garden style, but advancing it. What can Japanese gardens become? Our responsibility is to also move the tradition forward, because tradition is only one little step within a long evolution.

A new, smaller courtyard garden is more like an agricultural field. Then we added a cascade garden to the forefront of the Japanese Garden, which is actually outside of the garden itself, because we like to provide for those who are not paying admission.

Often sand and stone gardens are referred to as Zen gardens in the U.S. but that isn’t accurate. They are dry landscapes, referred to as karesansui gardens, guided by the principle of the “beauty of blank space.” These gardens are designed for contemplation, rather than meditation. How do you explain the growing interest in “blank space” landscapes and buddhism over the past few decades?

It’s about the feeling of relief. An object is tangible — visible and touchable. We conceive what it is and generate feelings. But a void, or nothing, makes us think. In some ways, it actually frees us to change the mode, or forces us to change the mode of thinking, by not thinking. If you have all objects, there is friction. Having the void space provides lubricant for our thinking.

Void space is very important in all Japanese art: calligraphy, for example. An object only exists because of the void.

Sand and stone garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

It’s important, especially in today’s world, to step out. Our ability to learn is tied to our ability to step out of “us,” “me,” and “my.”

You are there in the garden because of others. It’s a similar notion: only because of the void can the object exist and be identified. It’s relevant to how we live in our society and cross-cultural. The void is a very wise tool. If we can carry that tool, we can be able to see.

The void in sand and stone garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

The flat garden (hira-niwa) further elaborates on this dry landscape style, adding trees and plants that provide color for all seasons. The garden is meant to be experienced from a single viewpoint, looking out beyond Shogi screens in the pavilion. You describe the void as a way to focus on an object in the sand and stone garden, but here that idea has evolved. Why is the expression of seasonal change important in this landscape?

The experience of the garden has both physical and temporal aspects. The flat garden with white sand, lined with pine, cherry, and maple trees, presents the notion of the passage of the time. By providing essentially a still picture through the flat garden, you become much more keen it. You are not physically moving, so you can catch time. But time also has its own way to move independent from our movement.

Flat garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden
Flat garden / Courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden

Often, there are no flowers in Japanese gardens. Compared with English gardens, there are certainly less. But when flowers exist in Japanese gardens, they are manifesting the passage of time.

Japanese gardens, in a skillful way, give you a sense of the clear passage of a season. That means you can anticipate what’s coming next. That anticipation is the beautiful part. We need to place ourselves in that cycle, so there’s a reason to live and something to look for.

A few years ago, you led the Cultural Crossing expansion of the garden with Portland-based landscape architecture firm Walker Macy and Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, creating a 3.4-acre set of spaces that includes a new pathway to the garden, entry sequence, visitor buildings. The addition seamlessly blends architecture and landscape architecture, Japanese aesthetics with ecological design. What does this project mean to you and how did you guide the project?

Given I have been garden curator for 14 years, it’s really the culmination of my service. The intent of the expansion was to release pressure on the existing garden. In 2015, we started to see close to 400,000 visitors a year. That’s a lot for five and a half acres.

We knew the time to expand would come, so we were well-prepared. Our goal was not expansion in the sense of make the space bigger, but to instead create a new experience outside the garden. The goal is to maintain the tranquility of the original garden, because that’s why people come. No matter if the visitor is in high school student or elderly, they are coming for tranquility, so we have to absolutely defend and maintain that.

It’s nice to have shelters, and, in the wintertime, have a sip of tea and visit exhibition and workshop spaces. In Japan, gates delineate sacred space and secure activities. The entire new space and the facilities serve as a gate to the existing garden.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Cultural Crossing Transforms Portland Japanese Garden into a Place of Cultural Dialogue. Portland, Oregon. Walker Macy. Portland Japanese Garden / Jeremy Bitterman

It’s a quintessential Japanese experience. Like in a small village, there’s the agricultural field surrounding the village, then semi-natural wooded areas, then wild nature. Typically, the village shrine is built right on the edge of the wild nature, so there is always the journey. We have emulated that.

When Kengo Kuma first visited the garden and looked at the site, the only one thing he said was, “Uchiyama-san, I don’t think we need to do much.” He was totally in tune with the land. We termed the concept for our expansion as editing the land, as opposed to creating something. We worked with what’s given. After all, we are surrounded by the triple environmental zone, so it’s the most difficult place in Portland to do anything. We embrace and treasure and only touch what is needed. That was the only discussion I had with him in a really substantial way. Once we agree on that editing part, the rest was really easy, because we know where we’re going. And the land actually told us.

ASLA 2021 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Cultural Crossing Transforms Portland Japanese Garden into a Place of Cultural Dialogue. Portland, Oregon. Walker Macy. Portland Japanese Garden / James Florio

The new entry sequence also gives people to time to switch their mindset from the hustle and bustle to being ready to see.

We live in such a divided country and world. How does Portland Japanese Garden offer principles that can guide other cultural landscape exchanges in post-conflict contexts? And can approaches taken in the Portland Japanese Garden serve as a model for other forms of cultural exchange beyond landscape?

Our goal is not necessarily to have a Japanese garden. That’s really the means. A Japanese garden is really just a beautiful means. The garden enables us to invite everyone. Everyone can enjoy. But we are a place, an occasion in time, to enable them to think and have conversation that otherwise may be harder to have elsewhere.

I’ve never seen anyone fighting in the garden. Somehow the garden brings emotional stability. The garden helps people go back to who they are — human beings, just speaking different languages and with different hair and skin colors. Those things don’t matter. We have all been around the same height for 150,000 years. Two eyes; two ears. That creature feels the same fundamental things.

We’re passive as opposed to active in terms of addressing those issues. But there is very few places in the world that just welcome any time, rain or shine. We are there to receive your emotion. And that’s what we’re talking about exactly: that is the model. We are rebuilding the model by way of Japanese garden. Creating a space where everyone can express emotions and can have a conversation. That’s all.

The garden is non-denominational. If you think of a building, once it’s complete, it has functions and names. A garden is a garden, that’s it. A garden can be a wedding venue or a place to cry. The beauty of gardens, and not just necessarily Japanese gardens, is the space is built with our psyche as human beings.

We, nature, and the garden are the facilitators. The important thing is to facilitate.

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2021

ASLA 2020 Urban Design Honor award. Yongqing Fang Alleyways: An Urban Transformation. Guangzhou, China. Lah D+H Landscape and Urban Design

To look ahead to the future of the built and natural environments, we should also look back to learn what was of greatest interest to readers in 2021.

Readers wanted to know how to best help communities adapt to increasingly severe climate impacts, such as extreme heat, flooding, and sea level rise. As the immediate effects of climate change become more real, debate over how to actually plan, design, and implement landscape solutions in the near term came to the forefront, with an increased focus on how to best incorporate nature-based solutions. Amid our changing relationship with the built environment, caused by climate change and COVID-19, there was also great interest in how to leverage urban design to improve mental health and well-being and bolster communities for the long-term. And readers sought new ideas and models on how to advance racial and social equity, through analyses of Frederick Law Olmsted’s writings and projects and a dive into the planned 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., which seeks to bridge the city’s long-time racial divisions.

The most read contributions from ASLA members delved into new and old models to help communities rethink their approaches to economic, social, and environmental change — from the rural-to-urban transect, to smarter arrangements of street trees, to new nature-based solutions to help coastal populations adapt to sea level rise and groundwater flooding.

ASLA members: please reach out to us with your big, timely ideas — your original op-eds or articles on topics you are passionate about. Tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

New Research: The Built Environment Impacts Our Health and Happiness More Than We Know

People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease.

Best Books of 2021

During another turbulent year, books remain a respite, enabling us to recharge and regroup in our efforts to tackle some of the most pressing problems. Over the holidays, now is a great time to delve into new books that offer fresh perspectives and help us reimagine what is possible. Whether you are looking for the perfect gift for your favorite designer or something to read yourself, explore THE DIRT’s 11 best books of 2021.

The Injustices of the South Shaped Olmsted’s Vision of Landscape Architecture

In the final decades of the 19th century, the new art of landscape architecture was born, in large part due to the efforts of Frederick Law Olmsted. This new profession offered “very specific responses” to the social, political, and environmental challenges of the time, argued Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, the John E. Irving professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, in a panel discussion organized as part of the year-long Olmsted 200 program. “Landscape architecture was radical during his time — a whole new field focused on social progress and reform.”

The Case for the Rural-to-Urban Transect

Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA: “The Rural-to-Urban Transect can serve as a noble tool in the reformation of our urban fabric. In one of his essays, written in 2005, [Andres] Duany warns that a failure to square environmental ethos and social equity concerns with free market choice as perpetuated by the status-quo sprawl may only be solved by ‘a long economic emergency…that none of us should wish upon the nation.'”

Urban Heat Islands Are Increasingly Dangerous, But Planners and Designers Have Solutions

According to Devanshi Purohit, associate principal of urban design at CBT Architects, who led a session at the American Planning Association (APA)’s virtual national conference, extreme heat is the number-one climate killer in the U.S., accounting for more deaths than sea level rise, flooding, drought, and other impacts. But, strangely, extreme heat doesn’t get the focus it deserves. Reducing urban heat islands should be a central focus of the planning and design professions.

Washington, D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park Nears Final Design

“The Anacostia River has divided Washington, D.C. for generations,” said Scott Kratz, vice president of Building Bridges Across the River, in a public update of the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. over Zoom. When the 11th street bridge built in the 1960s reached the end of its lifespan a decade ago, then Mayor Vince Gray and others saw an opportunity to “save part of the bridge, its precious pilings,” to create a new bridge park that would bring both sides of Washington, D.C. together.

Getting Real About Sea Level Rise: Landscape Architecture, Policy, and Finance

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA: “Adaptation to climate change is essential. But do landscape architects and planners understand the most important impacts of higher seas, assuming the goal is to design for adaptation without accidentally blowing it? And how will communities prioritize and achieve the social goals of adaptation in a systematically unequal society? Who will pay, who will benefit, and how can communities take the first steps?”

Kongjian Yu Defends His Sponge City Campaign

In a Zoom interview, Kongjian Yu, FASLA — founder of Turenscape, one of China’s largest landscape architecture firms, and creator of the sponge city concept — said, “first of all, Zhengzhou is not a true sponge city. There has still been way too much development and grey infrastructure.” And many Chinese cities have been using the term “sponge city as a political slogan” and a way to attract central government funding, given the deep support for the approach from Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Street Trees Are Important, But Need to Be Respectfully Sited

Robert Gibbs, FASLA: “Street trees alone cannot solve the problems and challenges that commercial urban areas face. Frequently, too much emphasis has been placed on planting street trees and installing decorative streetscape enhancements in an effort to improve retail sales in historic downtowns.”

Moakley Park: The Inclusive, Resilient Park That Prepares South Boston for the Future

Stoss Landscape Urbanism, led by Chris Reed, FASLA, has produced a fascinating 40-minute video about their new design for Moakley Park in South Boston, which vividly conveys how to create next-generation waterfront parks in the era of sea level rise, social and environmental injustices, and COVID-19.

New Green Spaces Don’t Have to Lead to Gentrification

Dequindre Cut, Detroit / The High Line Network, SmithGroup

Decades of redlining and urban renewal, rooted in racist planning and design policies, created the conditions for gentrification to occur in American cities. But the primary concern with gentrification today is displacement, which primarily impacts marginalized communities shaped by a history of being denied access to mortgages. At the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, Matthew Williams, ASLA, with the City of Detroit’s planning department, said in his city there are concerns that new green spaces will increase the market value of homes and “price out marginalized communities.” But investment in green space doesn’t necessarily need to lead to displacement. If these projects are led by marginalized communties, they can be embraced.

For example, efforts to enhance the Dequindre Cut in Detroit by transforming it into a 2-mile-long greenway were rooted in community needs and therefore have been supported. While the planning and design work by SmithGroup on the greenway corridor has led to positive economic impact, including growing nearby entrepreneurship and visitor engagement, it also expanded open space, expanded community development, and lifted up local graffiti artists. “We allowed the graffiti to stay and created canvases for more to come. It’s an avant-garde form of historic preservation, and a way to activate a latent, forgotten place.”

Dequindre Cut, Detroit / SmithGroup
Dequindre Cut, Detroit / SmithGroup

Another project is Ella Fitzgerald Park, in the Fitzgerald community, one of 10 key neighborhoods where the planning department has focused housing, park, and economic development investment. Given the neighborhood is experiencing high levels of bankruptcies and foreclosures, many remaining homeowners in the neighborhood can’t sell their homes. Instead of seeing a new community park and greenway designed by landscape architecture firm Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels and built by the city as a gentrifying force, it was welcomed as a safe place for children to play. “It was a needed change,” Williams said.

Ella Fitzgerald Park, Detroit / Earthscapeplay.com
Ella Fitzgerald Park and Greenway / Spackman, Mossop, and Michaels

The Joe Louis Greenway, named after the famous athlete, spans 27.5-miles from downtown Detroit to Dearborn, once a segregated Black city. A “vision of inclusive design, the project is a form of green reparation,” Williams argued. The city has overlaid where redlining had the most destructive impact in Detroit and surrounding communities and has used green amenities to undo part of the damage. “We can focus on those red areas on the redlining maps, transforming them into productive, innovative, and ecological areas.” Planning and design efforts with SmithGroup included significant community engagement. Strategic green spaces, rooted in community desires, are one of “our best tools to address the mistakes of the past.”

Joe Louis Greenway, Detroit / SmithGroup
Joe Louis Greenway community planning meeting, Detroit / SmithGroup

Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, director and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and current fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, received a 2020 research prize from the SOM Foundation for her work, Reclaiming Black Settlements: A Design Playbook for Historic Communities in the Shadow of Sprawl. Her research has involved mapping Black Freedmen’s communities across Texas and included seven research projects in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area. Along the Trinity River, Allen has been immersing herself in “the bottom lands, the industrial lands” where many Black communities made their home. Despite the long-term environmental justice issues, these communities are still facing displacement pressures. “Riverfronts are hot right now, the place to be,” she said.

The existing community isn’t reacting negatively to Harold Simmons Park, a park planned on the Trinity River by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates because it would create “healthy social spaces along the river.” To ensure housing prices in Black communities near the park don’t go up, a development corporation linked with a local church is “getting ahead of the curve and stabilizing and renovating homes.”

Harold Simmons Park, Dallas, Texas / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Harold Simmons Park, Dallas, Texas / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Another community down river, the Garden of Eden, founded by a Black family in 1881, has been impacted by concrete companies that dug industrial gravel pits along the river. Once leases on the land ended, the companies were supposed to fill in those gravel pits but never did. So the community is “reclaiming those pits through green infrastructure, creating recreational spaces.”

And at the last of the seven sites studied along the river, Joppa, a historic Freedmen’s town, there is the Joppee Lakes project, the site of a railroad and concrete plant which is being re-imagined as a stormwater solution for downtown Dallas. The Army Corps of Engineers turned the site over to the City of Dallas, which is in turn working with Black community there to revamp the Honey Springs Branch Park surrounding the lake as a community hub with green infrastructure that can handle both sewage treatment and provide recreation.

To avoid green gentrification, Allen said it’s key to “understand the history of each place. Design has to be grounded, and history is really powerful.” Black Freedmen’s communities along the Trinity River have created a community roundtable and are “envisioning the future together.” They are sharing “funding and grant sources, and talking about the issues.” Freedmen’s town groups are also “linking green spaces, creating a trail that will connect them all.” They are “very smart about the politics and policy and the air quality issues around transportation and cement plants.” Landscape architects can work with communities like these to help them “articulate the issues” and “promote and enhance connections with each other.”

Joppee Lakes, Texas / DesignJones LLC

Boston has invested $5 million to re-imagine Frederick Law Olmsted’s Franklin Park in Boston’s Dorchester, Jamaica Plains, and Roxbury neighborhoods. A team led by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand is spearheading the action plan effort and includes MASS Design Group, which is focusing on the “city edge’s and neighborhood connections,” and Agency Landscape + Planning, which is focusing on public engagement, planning, and programming. According to Sierra Bainbridge, ASLA, a landscape architect and senior principal with MASS Design Group, her organization is seeking to answer questions like: “Can we connect present and future generations to the park? Can the surrounding neighborhoods benefit from the procurement process for a redesigned park?”

Franklin Park Action Plan / Agency
Franklin Park Action Plan / MASS Design Group

Bainbridge argued that park’s ill-conceived boundaries are keeping many people out. The edges, which are “prohibiting access,” include 3-4 lane streets with no lighting for crosswalks. There are also no local businesses along the park, so if food trucks aren’t there, visitors need to bring in their own food and drink. “There is a huge opportunity to increase connections between the park and local community, particularly through large events.”

Franklin Park Action Plan, Boston, Massachusetts / Agency, MASS Design Group, Reed Hilderbrand

While planning and zoning changes need to happen to grow local business presence around the park, Bainbridge said procurement is also a powerful tool for increasing community engagement with the revamped Olmsted park. Looking to MASS Design Group’s work in Rwanda as a model, she said training and hiring local artists, masons, and workers was key to creating a sense of ownership around the organization’s community healthcare projects. “The question for many was ‘who is this project for?; we showed them that it is for them.” As a result, community members who worked on the project began to trust in the mission and started going to the care center and hospitals.

In the same vein, Franklin Park can create opportunities for local artists and workers. There is some flexibility in Boston’s procurement procedures if the amounts are under $10,000. “There is potentially a way to also phase larger projects in smaller amounts” to give more local businesses and artists chances to bid. As part of the project, the team is also training small minority- and women-owned businesses to take advantage of these opportunities. “Training costs less than 10 percent of the project, but the impact is multiplied throughout the community. Training is embedded in the plan.”

Landscape Architecture in the News (December 1-15)

Nighttime aerial view of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania / istockphoto.com

Why Pittsburgh Is Dimming Its Streetlights — 12/14/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Pittsburgh is becoming the first city in the eastern U.S. to become dark sky compliant, meaning it will switch to LED lightbulbs that reduce light pollution and put the stars in view.”

Trauma-Informed Design Turns an Old Church into a Family Shelter — 12/10/21, Portland Monthly
“Cathy Corlett of Corlett Landscape Architecture planned the Family Village gardens, creating spaces specifically designed to promote joy and play through the use of curves and round forms. ‘You get a sense of freedom with soft and welcoming boundaries,’ Corlett says.”

Ensamble Studio Plans Multipurpose ‘Desert Rocks’ Landscape in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla Region — 12/09/21, DesignBoom
“‘The project departs from identifying iconic rocks of alUla and recognizing their value as places,’ notes the studio. ‘From the nabatean monument of Madain Saleh and the pre-arabic inscriptions of Jabal Ikmah, to the many natural formations – like elephant rock, arch rock or hand rock– the sculptural character and cultural meaning of these stony create strong attraction forces for both visitors and locals alike.'”

Study: Better Bike Policy Could Prevent 15K U.S. Deaths Every Year — And Not Just in Crashes, 12/02/21, Streetsblog
“In the first study ever to model the comprehensive global public health impacts of the mode shift to cycling, researchers at Colorado State University and a coalition of Spanish universities explored two very different transportation futures for 17 countries.”

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden Redesign Is Approved — 12/02/21, The New York Times
“The much-debated plan by Hiroshi Sugimoto will overhaul the Brutalist design by Gordon Bunshaft, adding open-air galleries, a new water feature and improved access.”