Interview with Ignacio Bunster-Ossa: The New Geography of Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA

Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, FASLA, is national practice leader for landscape architecture at AECOM. He is the author of Reconsidering Ian McHarg and with David Rouse, ASLA, Green Infrastructure: A Landscape Approach. In his previous work as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), Bunster-Ossa led the development of the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica, California, and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia has made great strides in its efforts to become a more sustainable city. Most recently, the city government announced it will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. The city’s green works sustainability plan, transportation plan, and city-wide vision plan lay out ambitious goals. Over the past decade, what have been Philadelphia’s major contribution to the sustainable city movement? And where does the city need to improve?

What propelled the big leap forward was the consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use green infrastructure to manage water pollution going into the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers. The agreement became the Green City, Clean Waters program, which is managed by the Philadelphia water department.

Philadelphia had a vast network of rivers, streams, and creeks, which in many cases were supplanted by underground sewers. These sewers erased the city’s hydrological foundation. Green City, Clean Waters is not quite undoing this system but introducing a new geography of green infrastructure that is not only shaping how the city ecologically functions but also how it looks. The program has produced fantastic parks and greenways. That’s a credit to the leadership: Howard Neukrug, director of watersheds and then commissioner of the water department, who instigated a lot of this; and Mami Hara, ASLA, his deputy for years, who is now the water chief in Seattle.

Fairmount Park rain gardens by Studio Bryan Hanes / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Where we still need to improve: We see projects in areas that have the land. Parks and plazas have been retrofitted or designed anew to incorporate green infrastructure. But Philadelphia is an old, pre-industrial city where streets and sidewalks are tight. The challenge is how do you green streets in South, North, and West Philadelphia? There is so little space to implement a green vision.

Green trolley station in West Philadelphia. A concrete wasteland was transformed into a plaza with colorful plantings, porous paving, shaded seating and a café. Designed by landscape architecture firm Andropogon Associates. / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

If you talk to engineers, they’ll say, “well, we can only put an underground cistern,” which works from a water quality point of view, but doesn’t provide the other benefits that green infrastructure produces: shade, biodiversity, and the like. This is the problem we need to address in the future.

As you mentioned, Philadelphia’s landmark green infrastructure plan — Green City, Clean Waters — and the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program have led to the creation of more than 850 greened acres. A greened acre absorbs up to one inch of rainfall through trees, rain gardens, bioswales, and green roofs. What does the program need to accomplish next?

800 acres is less than 10 percent of the total required by the consent agreement, which is 9,300-plus greened acres. The question is: how do you implement green infrastructure in places where it’s the most difficult to implement?

Typical narrow downtown street in Philadelphia. A parklet helps absorb stormwater / Ignacio-Bunster Ossa

There’s also an issue of cost: if a greened acre costs $100,000 an acre, that is expensive. Another challenge is hiring a quality workforce who can work on green infrastructure in a way that benefits the most number of people.

Connect, the city’s first strategic transportation plan aims to make public transportation systems more integrated, equitable, and accessible. However, state funding for SEPTA, the regional railway system, is expected to fall. How can a sustainable regional transportation plan be forged among the Delaware River Valley community?

The issue is politics. The solution lies in Harrisburg; it doesn’t lie with SEPTA. Many communities in Pennsylvania don’t use or need transit because they are too spread out. These communities hold power in the allocation of funds that both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia need for transit. It’s a classic case of constituencies fighting for resources.

SEPTA has improved a lot over the years. It’s much more pleasant now to ride trains and buses. We’ve added many miles of bike lanes. And in a warehouse somewhere, there are thousands of electronic scooters ready to be rolled out. There is a new dynamic for moving around in the city.

Philadelphia bike lane / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

One of my biggest hopes is the city will dedicate streets or a whole corridor to low speeds, like 15- 20 miles an hour. If you hit a pedestrian at those speeds, they have an 80 percent chance of being unscathed; maybe a bruise, but that’s it. The city could do that along major corridors. Dedicated street are better than just bike lanes — they result in greater usage of sustainable transportation options.

Through its Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program, the city will be investing $500 million to make fair and equitable improvements in community parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, libraries across the city. What has the program accomplished so far? Are there fears new amenities could exacerbate gentrification?

The program is new so it hasn’t produced the scale of improvements that can lift up the whole city. The rebuild program has identified specific areas based on income, quality of the resource, need for the resource, and level of improvement. They’re spending the money in a prioritized way. And the $500 million is not all there. It’s being accumulated from a tax on soda, as well as from contributions from foundations. This is a long-term program that can produce results.

The issue of gentrification is very, very serious in Philadelphia. From a personal experience living in West Philadelphia, now known as University City District, I’ve been the recipient of the positive side of gentrification. But because of that, I’m acutely aware of the impacts.

I don’t think it necessarily follows that improvements will produce gentrification, in part because Philadelphia is one of the poorest cities. For large cities, the median income is one of the lowest, if not the lowest. The city is also predominately African-American, so the infusion, if you will, of white money that can produce gentrification won’t affect communities most in need of basic improvements. Perhaps long-term that could be the case. But the program isn’t prioritizing in any way, shape, or form projects that can induce re-development in a gentrifying way.

A recent study by Bloomberg found the City of Brotherly Love is sadly the third most unequal city in the U.S. behind Miami and Atlanta. Furthermore, the city jumped 17 spots in the past year, the sharpest negative move among the top ten most unequal cities. How can Philly better address the large income gap between those who live in or near Center City and those in low-income neighborhoods?

An associated consequence of the income gap is the gap in access to public resources. A research study by University City District called Just Spaces surveyed under-represented communities in the district. They want to find out: why don’t low-income people use bike lanes? Why don’t they use parks or public spaces? There are racial and economic reasons.

The report may point the way towards how you can create equity– not in terms of income, but at least in terms of access to affordable mobility and parks and recreation, which can elevate quality of life for everyone.

Philadelphia is also a hot spot for air pollution, earning an “F” grade from the American Lung Association and ranking just behind Memphis and Richmond for the country’s worst air. One in ten Philadelphians have asthma. Furthermore, asthma rates are spread unevenly, largely tracking with areas that are abnormally hot with fewer trees. This is because extreme heat combined with pollution forms dangerous levels of ozone that lead to asthmatic emergencies. How can this city address the inequity of the urban heat and air pollution issue?

Green infrastructure is a real solution — and it was embedded in the precursor to Green City, Green Waters, which was the Green Plan Philadelphia, a landmark report that Mami Hara also guided. The problem in Philadelphia is the tight streets where you can hardly fit a tree, given all the utilities. God forbid you remove a parking space. There’s a tremendous need for vegetation, particularly in South Philadelphia, where it’s very hard to find a tree in any given block.

The other component is obviously the roof landscape. In much of the city, roofscapes exceed streets in area. I would start programs that can produce green roofs, certainly blue roofs, but also change the material on the roof, so they are more reflective. You would see temperatures go down. I would do everything possible to improve the shade cover on streets as well.

Comcast Tower green roof by OLIN / Ignacio Bunster-Ossa

Philadelphia did a program called Green Streets that I was part of. They have a design manual for green streets, which explains how to incorporate green infrastructure every time you fix a street. Over time, the city can make a dent in the air pollution problem.

After many years as a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd (WRT), where you designed projects such as the Palisades Park and Beach Boardwalk in Santa Monica and the SteelStacks Art and Cultural Campus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, you moved to AECOM, where you’re now national practice leader for landscape architecture. In your new position, how do you hope to move Philly in a more sustainable, equitable direction?

We have folks in Philadelphia working for the water department on the green infrastructure program. We collaborate on where the rubber hits the road: How do you take a very small area and make it green? If there’s one lesson about the Green City, Clean Waters program is we’re almost dealing at the micro-landscape scale. That’s the level at which improvements are made over time.

The other work is focused on building parks near creeks to improve the quality of the water, but also recreational trails, such as in Pennypack and Tacony Creeks, and the Schuylkill River boardwalk, which is part of one the nation’s top urban trails.

Schuylkill River boardwalk / AECOM

The city has a very robust community engagement process. Philadelphia has a neighborhood-centric social structure. It’s great to work with people at that scale to make change.

And what have you learned from your 20-plus years’ experience in Philly that you want to bring to other cities and the national level?

It’s all about the scale of the city. Compare downtown Philadelphia to downtowns in other places, compare the widths of streets. I’ve measured this: it takes me 12 steps to cross most Center City streets. That’s 2-3 seconds. It’s a highly pedestrian-friendly environment because it’s so easy to cross a street.

When I go to other places and they tell me, “oh, you need a radius of 30 feet, because you need a truck to move around the city,” I say, “No you don’t.” I can show examples of big fire trucks moving around the city in this tight environment.

If I had to say anything about Philadelphia that would lead to a better future — it’s we need to take vehicles out of Center City and dense urban areas. Uber and autonomous vehicles (AVs) create on-call circulation that can travel at very low speeds. You no longer need parking. This evolution is inevitable in American cities. Philadelphia is ready-made to lead the way.

Medellín Is Healing Itself with Social Urbanism

Medellín, Colombia / Maria Bellalta

The Colombian civil war that began in the 1960s killed some 220,000 people and displaced another 5 million, creating one of the largest groups of internally-displaced people in history.

In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia, Maria Bellalta, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the Boston Architectural College (BAC), said the civil war was the terrible legacy of Spanish colonialism, which created a deeply unequal economic and social system that exploited both the environment and native peoples.

Colombians displaced from their farms in the countryside and severed from the natural environment by “greed and violence” ended up in cities like Medellín. There, the chaos of government and guerilla warfare, endemic poverty and great inequality, and the legacy of environmental destruction contributed to the rise of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, who ruled from the neighborhoods at the outer lip of the valley that gives form to the city.

All the violence and corruption scarred not only the city but also the landscape, said Bellalta, who has been bringing her students to Medellín to see and learn for the past few years. But a decade after the death of Escobar in 1993, Medellin invented a new approach, which then-Mayor Sergio Fajardo called “social urbanism.” The goal was to use urban design — and importantly, landscape architecture — to reduce inequality and heal the environmental damage.

Fajardo “invited disregarded communities to participate in planning efforts,” which resulted in major investments in new subways, aerial tramways, bicycle infrastructure, libraries, and beautiful parks — with the majority of the new amenities created in underserved communities. Efforts to “change the social dynamic” yielded new networks of aerial trams and lengthy escalators built into steep hills. These inventive, low-cost transportation systems created new connections to the city center for the once-isolated, difficult-to-reach communities with high numbers of low-income residents. World-class libraries and green spaces were purposefully built in the places that had no parks.

Aerial trams in Medellín / The Gondola Project
España Library-Park in Santo Domingo Savio in Medellín / Royal Institute of British Architects
Botanical garden of Medellín / Flickr

The city was also smart to re-use existing infrastructure. Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAS), which Bellalta said are equivalent to our YMCAs, were “strategically created by re-purposing existing water tanks that form part of the city’s hydraulic system.”

Bellalta noted an important public work that has also helped Medellin and Colombia heal: the Museum of Memory, a “poignant tribute to those who died or disappeared during the civil revolution.” The museum is found alongside a linear park that follows the Santa Elena stream. The park is designed to “offer relief through a magical re-encounter with nature and the cleansing attributes of water.”

Museum of Memory, stream found to the left of the museum / Juan David Botero

Lina Escobar, director of the landscape architecture program at the Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana in Medellín, further explained how the city is cleansing itself with water and nature.

Since its founding, the city has been intertwined with the Aburrá river — or Medellín river — and the Santa Elena creek, its primary tributary. “Medellín’s geography is determined by the river and tributaries that crosses the valley,” which has shaped the city’s orientation and patterns of development. In the 1940s, a 30-kilometer stretch of the Medellín river was put in a concrete channel to reduce flooding. As the population started to swell in the 1950s, the city developed around the river.

Medellín River / School of Landscape Architecture, Boston Architectural College
Medellín River / Maria Bellalta

Then in 2014, Medellín city government launched an international design competition to envision a new Medellín River Park (Parques del Rio). The competition asked firms to create a master plan for the entire length of the river as it cuts through the city and then focus in on the central zone — the 9-kilometer stretch through the core of the city.

Medellín-based firm Latitude beat out the competition with their concept for a “botanical park that recovers connections to water systems through a revitalized biotic metropolitan corridor.” The park developers will take parts of the concrete channel out, bury an adjacent highway, and create a new, lush green spine, with tendrils spreading throughout the valley.

Medellín River Park / Latitude
Medellín River Park / Latitude

Escobar said the new park, which is now in development, is not only a “new ecological structure for the region, but also re-frames people’s relationships with each other and nature after years of conflict.”

Medellín River Park / Latitude

Daniela Coray, who was a graduate student of Bellalta’s at BAC, said there are so many other opportunities to heal the rupture between city and nature. Her master’s thesis project looked at ways to restore the polluted Santa Elena stream, particularly near the emotionally-resonant Museum of Memory. “The stream holds the memory of geographical and social divisions that could begin a process of healing.”

Through an interesting aside that took us out of Medellín, Ken Smith, FASLA, founder of Ken Smith Workshop, related how principles of social urbanism could be applied at the landscape-scale in other cities. He “deliberately engineered” the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan for social interaction through inventive “social seating,” a dog park, and meandering paths that force people to see each other. “The paths curve because it’s impossible to meander in a straight line.”

East River Waterfront Esplanade / Ken Smith Workshop

The important but unspoken message was that the smart design strategies of social urbanism need to be more widely applied around the globe.

Interview with Hitesh Mehta: The Spiritual Side of Sustainability

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA / HM Design

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, is president of HM Design, which has completed planning, architecture, and landscape architecture projects in more than 60 countries. He is an international expert in sustainable tourism, including wildlife conservancy planning and eco-lodge development. Mehta is also the author of Authentic Ecolodges (Harper Design).

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

In more than 60 countries, you have worked on some of the finest sustainable tourism planning and eco-lodge projects in the world, including the Crosswaters Ecolodge in China, which won two ASLA professional awards. National Geographic has called you a pioneer of sustainable tourism. What are the top three lessons you have learned from your many projects working with local and indigenous communities?

Lesson number one: Never judge people from the way they look. Indigenous people have lived on their land for thousands of years. Through storytelling and personal experiences that have been passed over generations, they have built knowledge and wisdom crucial to every project.

Lesson number two: Empower local people from day one, especially women and children. At home, women make a lot of the decisions, and youth are the future. Bringing them into a project on day one helps ensure a sustainable project. You want to give them ownership. It’s a ground-up approach rather than top-down.

Lesson number three: No matter how much of an international expert you are, no matter how much research you have done, and how much knowledge you have acquired, always go into every project without an ego. Go with good listening skills first. Once you’ve heard local peoples aspirations, needs, etc.; gathered on-site information; walked the site with the locals; and have conducted a metaphysical site analysis, slowly share what you can bring to the table, making sure you let them know what they bring to the table is equally important.

Indigenous communities are in the front lines in the fight against climate change. How do you empower them in their fight to protect endangered ecosystems and their own livelihoods? Are there any projects that serve as models?

Indigenous communities, especially in the less developing world, are greatly affected by climate change. A lot of these communities live in the tropics. Especially in Africa, drought and the lack of drinking water are big issues. This in turn, causes food security problems. In Kenya, where I am still a citizen, the Maasai look at their cattle as their economic lifeline. That’s what keeps them going. If there is drought, there is no grass. There’s nothing to feed the cattle, and it can become a serious issue, because this is their security.

A project that serves as an exemplary model is one in which I led a team of local Kenyan consultants and where we worked together with the clients — the Koiyaki Maasai community — to help create an ecotourism and conservation destination called Naboisho Wildlife Conservancy. Previous to our intervention, the community had subdivided their 50,000-acre land into 50-acre parcels owned by 500 families. But every family had their cattle and goats, which caused the land to be overgrazed. Lack of grass and presence of cattle kept all the wild animals away.

The Maasai decided to consolidate all their land and brought in private lodge operators — eco-tourism companies — as a way to generate income for them. The Maasai all moved to neighboring lands they also owned. The private partners contracted us as protected area ecotourism planners, and, together with the Maasai, tourism and conservation stakeholders, we created an integrated sustainable tourism, biodiversity, and grazing master plan for the conservancy.

Planning with the Koiyaki Maasai community / HM Design

With five small twelve-room tents and lodges, money started flowing directly into every Maasai’s home at the end of each month via their mobile cell-phones. They no longer had to rely solely on cattle for their livelihood. Wild animals started coming back, because cattle mainly grazed in neighboring areas. And the tourists are paying big bucks to have quality guided safari experiences. Creating a wildlife conservancy was a win/win for everyone: the tourists, the private partners, flora and fauna and of course the Maasai and their cattle. During droughts, cattle are only allowed into the conservancy in certain controlled areas. The conservancy fees provide the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood and ensure the conservation of the wildlife in this vital corridor of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.

As populations grow around the world, but also in sub-Saharan Africa, human and wildlife conflicts are becoming more prevalent. How can we protect endangered species while also ensuring people’s livelihoods? Are there models that show the way?

There are many models, particularly in Africa, and it has become mainstream to go in this direction. A project that I worked on many years ago that is still a good case study is the Virunga Massif Trans-Boundary protected area. Virunga Massif straddles and borders of three East and Central African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Each country has a national park along their respective borders. This region protects the only remaining populations in the world of mountain gorillas. The parks are bordered by dense populations of local peoples, and there are human-wildlife conflicts with gorillas going out into the fields. We prepared an integrated sustainable tourism and biodiversity master plan for the whole region. When we began the master plan in 2005, there were only 600 mountain gorillas, and the latest count is 1,004!

Virunga Massif integrated master plan / HM Design

Apart from conserving important habitat, the master plan also proposed several eco-lodges at the edge of the parks. All of them have now been built and are financially successful. The demand to see the mountain gorillas is so high that eco-tourists are paying $1,500 for one hour to be with these great apes. There’s a one-year waiting list!

What’s great is that some money is channeled straight to local communities, which now see the importance of maintaining the gorillas’ habitat. The communities no longer take firewood from the forest because they earn a living from gorilla tourism and the eco-lodges bring in a lot of money from guests, with part of the profits used to benefit these communities.

A heart-warming part of the master plan just got realized five months ago on the Uganda side of the Virunga Massif in Mgahinga National Park. The Batwa, indigenous peoples, who used to live in the forest but had been chased out when the National Park was created in 1991, have now been re-located to a new village at the edge of the park and act as guides, taking visitors into the forest in the National Park, and showing them about their lives and connections with the forest. An eco-lodge where I had provided site planning consultancy, funded the Batwa village and Visitor Center, so the Batwa community could share their culture and live closer to the forest instead of the nearby urban town of Kisoro.

You have said we cannot have true sustainability without incorporating the spiritual. This belief is central to your metaphysical or sixth-sense approach to planning and designing projects, which you have also trained other planners and designers to apply. What is the core idea you want people to understand?

For the longest time, pragmatic environmentalists have been talking about the triple bottom line of sustainability — environmental, economic, and social. But in my work, I have found that without respecting the fourth element — spiritual — one cannot have sustainability. What do I mean by spiritual? Spirituality is the energy embodied in any place. The metaphysics of a place. The intangible aspects that cannot be measured by modern science. We need to respect this embodied energy to create a sense of place. The sacred space.

Feng Shui is a well-used example of the spiritual aspects of sustainability — the yin and the yang, the chi, and how to use that energy to create an amazing experience in which you have a spiritual connection with the site. Similarly, for over 8,000 years, the Indians have been applying principles of design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry called Vastu Shastra, which is even older than Feng Shui. Vastu Shastra is the ancient Indian science of harmony and prosperous living by eliminating negative energies and enhancing positive energies.

Native Americans also have a strong spiritual connection with their lands. When they take you on a walk of their country, they will point at a hill and say “this is our sacred hill” and when you look around, there are probably several others that look the same. So why is that hill sacred and not the others? It’s because there is a sacred energy embodied in that particular hill. My job as a landscape architect is to work with indigenous communities, so they can identify all those areas sacred to them. And then protect them.

If the clients do not believe in these traditional ways of looking at the land, I propose the use of each one of our six senses to immerse into the site to understand the energy. Connect deeply to the land through the ears, mouth, eyes, nose, fingers, but most importantly through the sixth sense: when you become a part of the site and feel its energy. That is the crucial element of trying to create a project that’s sustainable, but also which creates a beautiful sense of place.

Metaphysical analysis of a place through touch / HM Design
Metaphysical analysis of a place through sound / HM Design

As part of your work of Landscape Architects Without Borders, you have provided pro-bono planning and design services to aboriginal tribes in Australia and other communities. How do you enable them to incorporate their landscape spirituality into a contemporary place designed for themselves but also tourists?

We worked with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia. They were the first aboriginal tribe that managed to get their land back from the white government in an area so close to a major city; Brisbane in this case. The land they got back was part of an island and has the second most popular camping sites in Australia.

However, the aboriginal peoples do not have camping site management experience, so we came in to help them build an ecotourism experience that would help them share their culture with guests and help make more money than before. We designed and built two glamping eco-shacks as examples of what they can achieve with enhanced camping experiences.

In the gardens, we proposed for the planting of bush tucker plants. The aboriginal peoples, who live in the outback have these special plants they eat called bush tucker. With their knowledge and wisdom, we created a beautiful indigenous garden that included both bush tucker and medicinal plants.

Planning landscape with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia / HM Design

You are a proponent of ego-less design, which is characterized by a deep respect for the environment and all of its inhabitants, existing cultures, and vernacular styles. Can you explain how you came across this design philosophy? What about your upbringing, your religious heritage, shaped that?

My childhood has heavily influenced the work I do in landscape architecture. My upbringing is in the philosophy of Jainism, which is one of the four main philosophies that came out of India. It’s by far the least known, because Jains don’t believe in preaching.

One of the main tenets of this philosophy is a Sanskrit concept called Ahimsa, which means non-violence to fellow beings, and non-violence to all other beings as well. In my family, we’ve been vegetarians for at least 3,000 years. The respect is so deep for other beings that Jain monks in India sweep the floor before they walk so they do not step on and kill any ants.

In true Jainism, they believe plants have feelings. In fact, modern science is confirming this, but my ancestors have believed this since 1,000 BC. True Jains don’t eat anything that grows below the ground — no potatoes or carrots — because every time you pick that plant, it’s dead. So you only pick a vegetable or fruit from a tree that continues living after you picked what you want. That is deep respect, even to plants. It’s all about low-impact living. This is the conservation ethic I practice in my work.

My projects are low-impact designs that respect everything. I practice a non-homocentric approach to planning, where everything is equal. You can call it vegan or ahimsa design and planning. I design non-violent spaces. For example, I identify all native species and make sure none of them are cut. And in all our projects, we only specify native plants.

And, personally, I have been practicing a vegan lifestyle for 13 years.

Lastly, you have called yourself a “holistic, contextual designer.” How do you think this is different from being a planner or landscape architect?

For me, there’s a big difference between holistic and contextual design. Holistic is when in my projects I look at animals and plants as my clients, too. So, when human clients come to me, I tell them: I see you as half of my clients, but the other half are the animals and plants. And when I perform a beautiful marriage of the two, we will have a holistic yet sustainable project.

Local communities are an important part of the holistic process. I involve them from the beginning. Local consultants also bring in amazing knowledge and wisdom. So, I consider the local consultants and communities, fauna, flora, and, of course, the clients’ financial needs, because a project has to be profitable for it to function. That is the holistic side.

I also look at myself as a contextual designer. I like to create projects in context with their cultural and physical environments. For me, placing in a glass, aluminum, and concrete building in the middle of a remote area with rich cultural architectural heritage is not contextual. My office carries out research both off-site and on-site in order to discover the local vernacular styles before starting on any project. We use a landscape design approach called the “continuity of the vernacular.”

Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design
Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design

Nancy Somerville: Landscape Architects Play Crucial Role in Fight Against Climate Change

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA CEO and Executive VP at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia / EPNAC

This speech was given by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA CEO and Executive Vice President, at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Sunday, October 21.

Every year at this meeting I’m reminded of the incredible variety of ways landscape architects serve their communities. The diverse talents and skills of this profession came home to me recently when I was visiting CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco. They are addressing issues of social equity as part of the revitalization of public parks. They are designing a resilient solution to a three-mile stretch of coastline infrastructure vulnerable to earthquakes and sea level rise. And one of their staff is pioneering a method for calculating the carbon footprint of landscape architecture projects.

Seawall Resiliency Project, Port of San Francisco / CMG Landscape Architecture

The landscape architects at CMG, all of you, and your colleagues across the country have much to offer a world that, more than ever, needs responsible stewards of the built and natural environments. For those of us on staff at ASLA, it is a privilege to be an advocate for what you do.

Before I get started, you may have noticed that ASLA has a fresh, new graphic identity. We think it not only works well in all contemporary media, it better reflects the energy and forward-thinking nature of the Society and its members, while remaining connected to our heritage and our values. Importantly, it will also help unify and strengthen the identity of the Society at the national and chapter levels.

Of course our identity doesn’t just come from our graphics. It comes from what we do and who we are.

I’m happy to announce that the Board has added inclusion and diversity to our statement of corporate values and culture.

This comes as we have convened our sixth successful diversity summit.

The summits, and our work throughout the year, reflect our unwavering commitment to increasing diversity in the Society and within the profession, and to build future leaders who truly reflect the communities we serve.

In addition to diversity, our other top priorities are advocacy and public awareness.

On the federal level, we maintained our strong advocacy efforts to protect important federal programs and policies, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Although the LWCF expired on September 30, it is still funded through December 7, 2018, and a bill to permanently reauthorize this critical program was approved in both the House of Representatives and Senate committees.

Thanks to your advocacy, multiple amendments that would have derailed this legislation were defeated by wide margins, allowing the bill to move forward. Unfortunately, the fight is not over. Both the full House of Representatives and the Senate now must pass a final bill before December 7. Please continue to contact your legislators to support LWCF.

Also under active consideration in Congress—and getting closer to final passage—are bills to address the maintenance backlog in the national parks and continue the Every Kid in a Park program. Our Government Affairs team worked with coalition partners and allied organizations to move these critical bills through Congress. Your continued support and participation in our iAdvocate Network has been critical—and will continue to be critical—every step of the way.

On the state side, this year we again saw record numbers of challenges to licensure. Some specifically targeted landscape architects along with other professions and occupations. Some were more indirect threats—including broad licensure reform legislation and executive orders for licensure review.

Our chapters are hard at work countering the attacks—and working pro-actively to educate their legislators about the work of the profession and its impact on public health, safety, and welfare. This year we expanded our annual state Advocacy Summit. In a partnership with the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, our member advocates were joined by their counterparts from the state licensing boards. The joint summit has already resulted in stronger communications and partnerships in many states—all of which will enhance our licensure defense efforts in the coming years.

On the priority of public awareness, we have continued our successful programs, like World Landscape Architecture Month, and our PARKing Day activities, and have also taken on new initiatives. Our signature “This is Landscape Architecture” campaign continues to be extremely popular—and very successful at increasing our visibility and enhancing public understanding of the profession. This campaign will continue again next April during World Landscape Architecture Month—with an added focus on involving more of the global landscape architecture community.

This is Landscape Architecture campaign / ASLA, image from ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park. Office of Jim Burnett. Gary Zonkovic Photography

Just started this year is a multiyear communications initiative in collaboration with our partners in what we call the Presidents Council—ASLA, the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture. We have engaged the FrameWorks Institute to help develop a comprehensive communications strategy for communicating about the profession—and its value. What makes FrameWorks so interesting, and why we selected them for this project, is that they focus on how underlying cultural values shape attitudes—and use that as a frame for identifying communication messages and strategies that resonate with those deep-seated values.

In the first phase of the work, FrameWorks is mapping the gaps between the public understanding of landscape architecture and how those within the profession think and talk about it. Early next year, FrameWorks will report back on the gaps and deliver preliminary recommendations on how to bridge them. In the next phase, they will develop and test specific messages and strategies for effectively communicating the value of the profession.

Getting the public to really understand—and appreciate—the profession of landscape architecture has been a longtime goal. And while we have seen a significant increase in media coverage over the last 10 years, we have a long way to go. Developing a better understanding of the profession will support not only our public awareness goals, but also our government affairs advocacy, and our efforts to build a more diverse pipeline of future professionals.

Landscape architects, of course, operate at the nexus of the built and natural environments, which means that by definition this profession has a crucial role to play in addressing the issues of climate change, sustainability, and resilience.

This summer we released Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, the report and recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience. The report identifies the most important design and planning approaches for creating healthy, climate-smart, and resilient communities. And it makes specific public policy recommendations to support those approaches. The recommendations are informing our professional development programming and our advocacy and communications priorities. We are promoting the recommendations directly with public policy makers, as well as through our coalition networks and partnerships.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Last month I was honored to represent ASLA as a delegate at the Global Climate Action Summit. The conversations there were both deeply alarming and very encouraging. But I came away with one very clear takeaway for ASLA and the profession. While there are many voices and many experts leading the charge on reducing carbon emissions, there are fewer voices and even fewer experts who understand what needs to be done to help communities adapt to the changing climate.

This profession has unique knowledge and a profound responsibility to help address the issues of climate adaptation and community resilience. That’s why we’ve enhanced and reorganized our online resources devoted to sustainability, resilience, and climate change, making this vast knowledge base even more accessible to our members and the public.

How important is all of this? Two weeks ago the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a startling new report outlining the catastrophic consequences if the global community fails to take significant action in the next 10 years. The U. N. report reinforces the need for all those responsible for shaping human environments to redouble their efforts to mitigate climate effects and to ensure the resilience of communities already seeing the effects of the changing climate.

This commitment to action is why ASLA has also signed on to the We Are Still In initiative. This coalition of over 3,500 organizations from all sectors of society is a way of publicly standing by the Paris Climate Agreement and its goals of reducing emissions and fostering resilience.

Finally, I want to talk about a very special project ASLA is undertaking in Washington, D.C.

With urban infrastructure in crisis, ASLA believes it’s time for new thinking on how the civic realm can better serve public needs and meet environmental goals. What better place to put those ideas into action than the street on which ASLA’s headquarters sits in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.? The Chinatown Green Street project will renew the entire block using a blend of green, complete, and smart street strategies—a “test kitchen” of innovative concepts. It will serve as a national case study for design professionals, municipal officials, policymakers, advocates, and the public.

ASLA Chinatown Green Street / Design Workshop

Unlike many organizations, ASLA is willing to make its principles more than just ideas on paper. We make them tangible and visible. With landscape architects at the forefront, ASLA first demonstrated its commitment to a sustainable future with a pioneering Green Roof on its headquarters building. Then, we transformed the building itself into the Center for Landscape Architecture following the highest standards of sustainable design and occupant wellness. Now, we are taking our principles directly to the street and the city.

Please visit the Chinatown Green Street page to learn more about the project and how you can support it.

Building Real-World Community with Minecraft

park_design
A park designed using the popular video game Minecraft / UN Habitat

Can a video game help bring landscape architecture to the masses?

According to Deirdre Quarnstrom: absolutely.

Quarnstrom is the general manager for Microsoft’s Minecraft Education program, which promotes the popular video game’s use as an educational tool. She is also a director at Block by Block, a nonprofit partnership between Microsoft, Minecraft-creators Mojang Studios, and the United Nations that uses Minecraft to broaden community engagement around public spaces in the developing world.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Quarnstrom was joined by Lauren Schmitt, ASLA, and Anaheim parks manager Pamela Galera, ASLA, to discuss how landscape architects can use Minecraft to expand and deepen the community engagement process.

Minecraft was first released in 2009, and since then has sold 150 million copies worldwide. The game allows users to create, modify, and explore 3D landscapes constructed out of one meter blocks. According to a 2016 article in the New York Times, it is the third most-selling game in history, behind only Tetris and Nintendo’s Wii Sports.

“Minecraft is a game, but at its core, it’s also a really powerful building tool,” Quarnstrom said. “Because it is blocky and not precise, it becomes a very accessible way for people to start building.”

Quarnstrom pointed out that many non-professionals find it difficult to understand how two-dimensional drawings translate into three-dimensional space. Minecraft helps bridge that gap, and in doing so, allows more people to participate in the design process.

plan_drawings
Traditional 2D representational techniques may be difficult for non-practitioners to understand / UN Habitat

“In the developing world, we find that the planning processes are often dominated by men,” Quarnstrom explained. Block by Block facilitates community engagement sessions using Minecraft to reach those usually excluded from those conversations, especially children, women, and the elderly.

These engagement sessions are not confined to a screen. Participants use site visits to contextualize the study area and then hold brainstorming sessions to discuss their ideas and address challenges. It’s only after those steps that the teams begin to develop their designs in Minecraft.

At the end of the workshop, the participants present their designs and rank ideas. Those blocky Minecraft designs are then handed off to professionals, who use them to develop buildable projects. Block by Block funds construction and works with local officials to ensure they are maintained after construction. According to Quarnstrom, Block by Block has successfully completed 75 projects in 30 countries.

presentation
A Block by Block participant presents her design / UN Habitat

When Minecon, an annual Minecraft convention with 15,000 attendees, was slated to come to Anaheim, California, Quarnstrom was struck with an idea. Why not bring the same process for a project in the festival’s host city?

As it turns out, the timing was perfect. “When we were approached by Block by Block, we were in design on the upper half of the Anaheim River Walk, and there was an opportunity for a children’s playground,” said Galera, Anaheim parks manager and landscape architect.

“We wanted this playground to be cool; we wanted it to be something very special.”

Galera and her team have used other tools for community outreach in the past, including open houses, pop-up meetings, and craft sessions building model playgrounds with ordinary materials like cups, straws, and string.

Galera worked closely with Block by Block to bring neighborhood children into the design and planning process for the new playground. They first created a basemap of the project site in Minecraft, which was loaded onto laptops for the participants to work on.

They then gave the participating children a “crash course in urban design” so that they could understand the project’s constraints and limitations. Finally, the children worked in groups to develop their ideas and build their models in Minecraft.

anaheim
Participants work in teams to develop their designs / Pamela Galera

The playground they designed is now under construction.

“For opening day, when we have our dedication, we’ll have the children out there and celebrate their contributions,” Galera said. There will also be a mural painted on a wall at the back of the park that will permanently commemorate the children’s involvement in the process.

Galera sees Minecraft not just as a tool for community engagement, but also as a way for landscape architects to engage with children about the profession and expose them to landscape architecture as a potential career path. In the case of the Anaheim project, she said that many of the participants were children of migrant farmworkers for whom the experience may have been their first encounter with landscape architecture.

“This is our challenge as landscape architects: our profession is nature-based, but it’s also people-based. We have to evolve to make sure our profession continues. This is just another tool. We shouldn’t be afraid of it; we should embrace it.”

Experience Brooklyn Bridge Park in Virtual Reality

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NYC / Alexa Hoyer

Experience Virtual Reality! Immerse yourself in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, which won the ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence in General Design. Explore this unique park built in part over abandoned piers, guided by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, president and CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

If you are on your phone reading this page, simply click on this URL and watch it in your YouTube mobile app: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI (please note that this video will not work in your mobile browser)

Be sure to turn around while watching so you can see all angles of the park!

Or if you are on a desktop computer, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQ2geeXMThI using your Chrome browser.

Go to settings and set the resolution to 2610s.

Use the sphere icon to navigate through the park! Note: the 360 video will not work in Firefox or Internet Explorer.

YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube
YouTube 360 on mobile / YouTube

Option 2: Watch a 3D 360 Video on Samsung Gear VR

If you own a Samsung Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung phone, go to Samsung Gear via the Oculus App and search for “Brooklyn Bridge Park” or “ASLA” to find our video.

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

Why Brooklyn Bridge Park?

ASLA selected Brooklyn Bridge Park because it won the ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Less than one percent of all award submissions receive this honor.

Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Brooklyn Bridge Park this way: “The plan allows for and encourages different experiences in the different spaces, from being wide open and being fully engaged with the people around you to intimate, forested places. It’s remarkable.”

The award also highlights Brooklyn Bridge Park because it’s a prominent example of how to transform abandoned post-industrial waterfronts into spaces for people and wildlife. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential.

Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA
Brooklyn Bridge Park VR / ASLA

Why Virtual Reality?

The communications world is increasingly image- and video-driven. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life.

Virtual reality takes video to the next level. As you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.

Why did ASLA make this VR film?

Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Brooklyn Bridge Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality can educate the public about landscape design in a compelling way.

The video has multiple goals: promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada; explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public; and demonstrate the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like a cut-off, post-industrial waterfront into a beloved community park.

Why should landscape architects use VR?

Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Brooklyn Bridge Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.

For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.

ASLA VR Film Credits

Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Ian Tuason
Production Assistants: Ward Kamel and Idil Eryurekli
Narrator: Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, President and CEO, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Post Production: Callum Wilkin Gillies

Thank you to Jamie Warren and Onika Selby at Brooklyn Bridge Park for making this all come together. At Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc, we appreciate the kind assistance of Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Hilary Archer, Jane Lee, and Lucy Mutz.

Design with Nurture: Women’s Leadership in Landscape Architecture

DWN
Design with Nurture / ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting

The demographics of landscape architecture have changed dramatically in recent decades as more women have entered the field.

At the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) president and PWP Landscape Architecture partner Adam Greenspan, ASLA, pointed out that the signatories to the 1966 LAF Declaration of Concern were all men. But in 2016, the LAF convened to draft the New Landscape Declaration. This time, 48 percent of its signatories were women.

“The composition of the field is changing, and the identities and voices coming up in the profession are more varied than they were 50 years ago,” Greenspan said. “We would like the discipline to continue to grow and change in order to shape the world in ever more meaningful ways.”

However, women landscape architects face a number of gender-related hurdles, which are compounded by the male-dominated culture of the larger construction industry.

“I never wanted to be a woman designer; I just wanted to be a designer,” said Michelle Arab, ASLA, director of landscape architecture at Olson Kundig. “But then I find myself in a situation where I’m the only woman in a room of sixteen people.”

“We’re missing women,” she said, pointing out that only 36 percent of ASLA members and just 20 percent of ASLA fellows are women.

Akiko Ono, ASLA, associate at Shades of Green Landscape Architecture, argued that certain subsets of the design professions carry gendered connotations, which can sideline both careers and entire areas of design practice.

For example, residential design is the single largest area of practice for landscape architecture, but large-scale planning and public projects often receive more attention and accolades. Ono suggested this may in part be because domestic landscapes and gardens are associated with femininity, while large-scale public projects are associated with the masculine ideal of the visionary, heroic architect or planner.

Ono also highlighted a New York Times article published after the death of starchitect Zaha Hadid in 2016 that highlighted the gender-laden assumptions faced by women in the design professions. “I Am Not the Decorator,” the article’s title declares.

For Michelle Crowley, ASLA, founding principal of Crowley Cottrell, values and culture were key factors that ultimately led her to start her own firm.

“As I gained more experience [as a landscape architect], I began showing a counter-culture approach to staff, clients, and contractors,” she said. “I showed a more vulnerable side, admitted mistakes, listened to contractors, and may have agreed to give up something in the design that was proving hard to build.”

“At one point I was told I was too maternal, which I took to mean I was too nurturing, protective, caring, kind, and comforting – all usually feminine qualities that I didn’t feel should be a negative.”

“Instead of changing my own behavior, I chose to start my own firm. I try to pride myself on being very transparent and honest. One the best parts of starting my own business is that I can be me.”

marthas_vineyard.jpg
Scott’s Grove, an affordable housing development on Martha’s Vineyard / Crowley Cottrell

Parenting remains one of the largest challenges faced by women in the workforce. Recent studies have identified motherhood as the source of the persistent pay gap between genders, even in countries with generous social safety nets.

And despite large cultural shifts over recent decades, women with children still spend more time on housework and childcare on average than men, making balancing work and personal schedules extremely difficult.

In the design professions, where many firm cultures celebrate working into nights and weekends, this can make for an unsustainable trajectory. Ono said that expectations about hours spent at the office ultimately forced her hand. “When I was told I couldn’t work part-time or have a flexible schedule, I knew it was time to move on.”

“You have to acknowledge that there is life outside of work, and that life enriches your work as well,” she said.

For Ono, motherhood is an example of a “personal, intimate, and compassionate relationship with nature,” which “can be turned into a quiet strength and understanding in designing the natural environment.”

Arab echoed that point, arguing that motherhood has only made her a better designer. “It was a defining moment when I had my son,” she said. “I had this stroller and I was defined by wheels – that’s an important perspective to have.”

Now that her son is older, Arab said her son helps her to “stop and, literally, smell the roses, look at the rocks, and explore things in a new way.”

dozer.jpg
Image courtesy Michelle Arab

“As designers, the more perspectives we can bring to things, the stronger we are.”

Parks Are a Critical Solution to Climate Change

PS 15 The Roberto Clemente School in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, a “state of the art green infrastructure playground” / Maddalena Polletta, The Trust for Public Land

Parks boost community resilience because they offer a place to develop deeper neighborhood connections. They improve community health by reducing stress, restoring cognition, and providing a place to exercise. Parks mitigate the urban heat island effect, improve air quality, and absorb carbon from the atmosphere. They support local biodiversity and can act as buffer zones for flooding or mudslides. Parks are both important social and environmental infrastructure.

To sum it up: “we need more parks if we want our cities to be more resilient to climate change,” said Joshua Alpert, director of special projects for C40, at an event organized by The Trust for Public Land and JBP Foundation during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

“We need public space if we want to know our neighbors,” explained Joshua Stanbro, with the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii. Parks are the “platform for social interaction,” but if designed and built with the community, they can also help forge stronger community connections.

Those connections are more likely to happen in parks that communities actually want. So it’s important that “we meet communities where they are,” said Diane Regas, president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land.

In New York alone, The Trust just built their 200th green schoolyard in an effort to build social networks so these communities can then better fight for climate equity.

Regas said some one-third of the population of the US doesn’t have a park within a 10-minute walk. Through their innovative 10-minute walk campaign, The Trust and its partners aim to undo that inequity.

Brady Walkinshaw, CEO of Grist, said the campaign is the kind of clear, simple communication that is needed because it successfully distilled complex urban planning ideas into an easy-to-understand message people can get behind, like the $15-an-hour minimum wage movement.

Urban parks are also important because they provide the foundation of urban forests, which help cities both mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate. According to Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests, urban forests absorb some 100 million tons of carbon each year, about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Trees found in these green areas can reduce energy use up to 7 percent because they provide wind blocks for homes in the winter and cooling in the summer.

In an effort to achieve equity, American Forests is now working with vulnerable urban populations to plant millions of trees. Daley said this work is more critical than ever because deaths from extreme heat are expected to increase ten fold by 2050.

Arturo Garcia-Costas, program officer for the environment with the New York Community Trust, said a more connective approach needs to be taken with green spaces in cities. He pointed to the Ramblas in Barcelona and the High Line in New York City as examples. “We need to think of the broader system and greater connectivity, with green space as the priority.”

Ramblas, Barcelona / Wikipedia

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), said ubiquitous “pave the planet” approach to development hasn’t been “healthy or climate-smart.” In fact, the approach make communities even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To increase safety, communities must instead create built environment systems that work in concert with natural systems. This is because “we are never going to tame Mother Nature.”

As an example, she said there is a great opportunity to design parks — and cities more broadly — to act like natural sponges that absorb stormwater. The great additional benefit of this green infrastructural approach: “It’s a much healthier system.”

ASLA 2009 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Buffalo Bayou, Houston, Texas, SWA Group / Bill Tatham

But Somerville also called for better science and data-based models in order to optimize design interventions in cities. With more accurate data-based geographic models and maps, policymakers can understand where the worst urban heat islands are, the most flooding is, the areas most impacted by mudslides, and then create the most effective parks that solve those challenges. “The lack of modelling remains a key gap.”

In comments on the session, landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, CEO of Studio-MLA, noted that in dense cities, the only remaining spaces that can be turned into parks are brownfields. Remaking those contaminated spaces is a “complicated and expensive process” that requires expert landscape architects.

Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, senior vice president at The Trust for Public Land and former head of NYC Parks and Recreation, agreed, arguing that “landscape architects are system thinkers” who can help communities maximize park benefits.

Lehrer, Alpert, Somerville, and Walkinshaw saw further densification as a critical future challenge for cities. Walkinshaw said: “densification is the cause of most fights in cities, as it brings up racial, civil rights, public space, and climate issues.”

Alpert believes green public space in the ultra-dense mega-cities of the near-future may end up being dis-aggregated into networks of not only parks but also rooftops and terraces, wherever space is available.

Designing for the Other Four Senses

The_Senses_cover_final_small
The Senses: Design Beyond Vision / Princeton Architectural Press

The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, a new book from designers and curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, is a compelling survey of the emerging field of sensory design. The book accompanies an interactive exhibit of the same name by the authors on display at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum through October 28th. While The Senses is not quite the manifesto for multi-sensory design practice its authors claim it to be, the book captures the poetics and science of sensory design and in doing so conveys some useful lessons for landscape architects.

Sensory design’s historically-narrow application has broadened as our own understanding of the senses has gained sophistication. Add to that the potential of emerging technologies to create and augment sensory experiences, along with the urgent need for more inclusive design, and you have the swell in popular attention the field is currently experiencing.

It’s worthwhile to ask whether, as landscape architects, we are guilty of treating hearing, taste, scent, and touch as second-class senses. Put to any landscape architect that the senses other than sight are important and you’re likely get a nod of agreement. What isn’t as clear is whether this acknowledgment commonly manifests in our design work.

Sensory experience commands greater consideration in landscape architecture than most design fields, and so landscape architects are better attuned to their designs’ effect on the senses. But we often conceive of and deploy landscape architecture as a palliative to harsher environments than rich sensory environments in and of themselves. As to how we might improve and innovate in this regard, The Senses offers some inspiration.

The first step is to bring to sensory design the same level of critical thought brought to visual and spatial design. What are the qualities of an environment where all five senses have been weighted equally in the design process, not simply manufactured under “the tyranny of the eye”?

The Senses features an interesting case study in San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually impaired. There, light and space are maximized, materials are chosen for their acoustic properties over their appearance, and details such as tapered handrails and textured steps are integral elements, not tacked-on details.

© 2017 don fogg | all rights reserved
Stairwell, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 2015 / Photo by Don Fogg.  The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

One recurring practice among The Senses’ featured designers that has an application for landscape is layering. Layering allows for the creation of environments rich with hierarchy and nuance.

Snarkitecture’s undulating wallpaper, Topographies, is one example, as is the Rich Willing Brilliant Studio’s attitude towards lighting. According to these designers, sound, smell, light, flavors, and texture can be layered to form thresholds and barriers, ceilings and corridors. If this seems architectural, that’s intentional. Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel stresses the multi-dimensional quality scents take on when layered and allowed to develop volume. Laudamiel is a master of evoking landscapes with his scents, such as meadows dense with wildflowers and the Bosporus Strait.

TheSenses p. 80_small
Topographies, 2017/ Photo courtesy of Calico Wallpaper. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

If there’s one project in the book the offers a more grounded idea of how landscape architecture and sensory design can interface, it is Tactile City. Expanding on existing tactile paving systems, Tactile City illustrates how streetscapes can be designed to benefit the visually impaired. Highly-textured paving tiles can signal features of the environment to someone relying on a walking stick. Indications of street furniture, bus stops, or construction can be imprinted in the landscape. “Sensory design can shape the beauty and function of a place – and address dangers and obstacles,” the authors write.

p 137_small
Tactile City, 2015 / Image courtesy of Theodore Kofman. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

Much of the exhibition and book is concerned with new technologies: The Scent Player, emitting smells instead of music,  or a device that converts reverberations against the skin into dialogue for the deaf. These technologies, while not immediately translatable to landscape architecture, underscore the fluid nature of our senses. The authors do an excellent job of conveying how senses feed and play off of one another. Sights can trigger smells can trigger tastes, with past experience setting some of the rules for these exchanges.

Cyrano Onotes device
Scent Player, Cyrano, 2017 / Photo by Wayne Earl Chinnock. The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (c)2018 Princeton Architectural Press

Experience of the landscape should engage all of our senses. Sensory design is about maximizing that experience and making sure others of differing abilities can as well. The Senses is a worthwhile read for landscape architects wanting to pursue these goals.

A Romantic Kind of Resilient Design

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

The first part of Hunter’s Point South Watefront Park, which opened in August 2013, announced a new era of park-making in New York City. The first significant waterfront park in years, Hunter’s Point South in Long Island City, Queens, was not only an example of stunning landscape design but also a manufactured place that can withstand storms and sea level rise — and be fully resilient to a changing climate.

Now, five years later, the 5.5-acre phase two of Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park has opened, extending south, so the entire park now encompasses 11 acres in total. The new segment provide a green buffer for the 30-acre development that will eventually be home to 5,000 units of housing in multiple towers, 60 percent of which will be affordable.

In contrast to the first phase of the park, which includes a playground, sports field, and restaurant, phase two feels like more of a true escape from the city — a green oasis right on the East River.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

According to SWA/Balsley, the landscape architects, and Weiss/Manfredi, the architects — who co-designed the park and partnered with engineers at Arup on the project — this section of the park is also a model of resilient design. But its approach is a bit different from the first phase. Instead of the muscular waterfront promenade designed to survive any onslaught, phase two takes a “soft” approach, using tidal marshes to protect the coast of Queens.

There is a meandering waterfront passage, with romantic lighting at night, that brings visitors right up to the very edge of the East River. Walking there one sunset, it was surreal to both commune with nature while taking in the breathtaking views of Manhattan across the river.

The path loops through the tidal marsh, where visitors can see all the plants growing in.

Hunters Point Park South, Phase 2 / Albert Vecerka, ESTO, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

Thomas Balsley, FASLA, principal at SWA/Balsley, told us: “The tidal marsh required an engineered rip-rap embankment, the top of which we transformed into a lush trail on which to stroll. The journey takes in shifting marsh habitat and skyline perspectives.”

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park, Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

Both low and high marsh plants were used to stabilize the sediment and control shoreline bank erosion. A variety of plants also enhance the quality of the water and provided habitat for a range of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

Paths in the interior of the park and along the waterfront take you to a dramatic overlook, an elevated promenade that brings you up and immerses you in the skyline of New York City. Cantilevering 50 feet out over the landscape and some 20 feet up in the air, the overlook creates the sense you are in the bow of a great ship.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park Phase 2 / David Lloyd, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

In contrast to the first phase, there are also many more nooks and crannies, areas the designers call “break-out lounges,” off the various pathways. These intimate spaces, often hidden in tall native bluestem grasses, enhance the sense of retreating into nature. Criss-crossing pathways through the grasses seem designed to invite further investigation and discovery.

Exploring the site, visitors will come across Luminescence, an art installation by New York-based artist Nobuho Nagasawa, which represents the phases of the moon through etched concrete discs that glow at night.

Hunters Point South Waterfront Park, Phase 2 / Bill Tatham, SWA, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi

The second phase of Hunter’s Point South waterfront park and related infrastructure for the housing development cost some $100 million, which was financed by the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). The entire park was designed in partnership with NYC Parks and Recreation, which also manages and maintains it.