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.”

New Research and Roadmap for Creating Healing Green Spaces

The Power of Sacred Places — 25 Years of Science and Evidence-based Design of Healing Green Spaces: A Landscape Architect’s Guide / Nature Sacred

Landscape architects can play a powerful role in changing lives — possibly in ways most haven’t fully contemplated. The spaces they design have the potential to measurably improve the health and well-being of those who spend time in them.

At Nature Sacred, we have spent the past 25 years creating green spaces – or what we call Sacred Places – with the sole intent of bringing nature to people so they could benefit from this restorative, healing connection. From the very beginning, we asked ourselves: how can we work with communities to create spaces that more fully capture the benefits nature has to offer? How do we incorporate established design principles while, at the same time, create spaces that resonate with people and their lived experiences? We knew instinctively that the two went hand-in-hand.

Working with landscape architects, academics, and on the ground with communities, we honed an approach to creating green spaces where people live, work, play and heal that is a blend of scientific evidence and ground truth. We’re sharing this approach in a new report that we released just two weeks ago at ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville.

The Power of Sacred Places — 25 Years of Science and Evidence-based Design of Healing Green Spaces: A Landscape Architect’s Guide” is part research and part practical guide, and shares key insights gained through having co-created more than 100 Sacred Places across the country in communities, many under-resourced; in prisons, at universities, and in hospitals. A handful of these sites were also implemented as part of an expansive, decade-long design, build, and research project.

The report, written by Nature Sacred’s Neha Srinivasan, MLA; and edited by Nature Sacred Design Advisor and University of Maryland Assistant Professor Naomi A. Sachs, ASLA, PhD, is intended to be a resource for landscape architects interested in creating green spaces that are designed to encourage contemplation and connection with nature.

Over the years, the science around the nature-health connection has continued to grow. While anecdotally, most wouldn’t argue with the statement that time spent in nature is health-building, the scientific evidence proves that nature has remarkable therapeutic benefits. Not to mention, our approach to designing nature spaces in cities is so critical to preserving our natural ecosystems and mitigating the negative health and ecological impacts of global warming.

The role of landscape architect is more influential than at any other point in history.

Using this research, landscape architects and designers can make stronger health-based arguments to decision makers and number crunchers to integrate thoughtful design of green spaces into larger planning projects — nature zones for recharging and wellness that will become magnets for the community.

For the research portion of this paper, we focused our attention on four domains: nature’s impact on individual, community, economic and ecological health. A few highlights of the research:

Individual health: Time spent in nature can reduce cortisol levels and symptoms of depression; research also suggests it can slow cognitive declines in people with dementia and improve memory and concentration — including in children with ADHD.

Community health: Easy access to shared green space and tree canopy in particular can influence drops in acts of aggression, violence and crime by 40-50% especially in public spaces, where trees are 40% more effective at reducing crime than trees on private property.

Economic health: Researchers have observed improvements in health perception comparable to a $10,000 increase in annual income with the addition of just 10 trees.

Ecological health: Healthy natural spaces provide carbon sequestration, filtration of air and water pollutants, reduced load on drainage systems, and decreased intensity of the deadly urban heat island effect.

All of these benefits can be reaped in small instances of nature — a pocket park, for instance.

Some of these benefits are what you might call passive; i.e. the sheer existence of the trees or well-planned green spaces will help address challenges related to carbon sequestration and water pollutants whether the community engages with the space or not. However, for many of the individual and community health benefits to kick in, people must engage with nature. Spend time in the green space.

And this is where Nature Sacred has spent a lot of energy over the past two decades — looking at how to best engage the community and how to best design so that the community embraces, and spends time in, their green space.

Suggestions for design

We grouped specific design suggestions into three outcome categories: making people feel welcomed, encouraging them to explore and play, and giving a site a specific purpose or two.

And central to the Nature Sacred approach: incorporating elements that are familiar to a community or reflective of its culture. This can go a long way toward helping nearby residents see themselves represented in a space, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will spend time in space and that it will become a Nature Sacred’s approach to designing landscapes involves four guiding principles, four design elements and one signature fixture. These ensure that our Sacred Places are optimally suited to meet the needs of the people they serve.

Four guiding principles

Every Sacred Place is designed to be:

Open and welcoming to everyone.

Nearby where people live, work, play and heal. Only when green space is conveniently reachable can it become an integral part of people’s everyday lives.

Community-led — This refers to both the creation and long-term stewardship; this is key ensuring the space is deeply rooted within the spirit of those it will serve.

Sacred — Meaning, this is a community-led space that strengthens ties, restores connection to nature and offers solace and rejuvenation.

Four design elements

Every Sacred Place incorporates a portal, path, destination and surround; a response to humans’ overarching need for cohesive structure in landscape. It’s important to note though that there are as many interpretations of these elements as there are Sacred Places.

Portal — An entry point to the site that indicates that one is stepping into an intentionally created space.

A Sacred Place at St. Anthony’s of Padua Catholic Church, Falls Church, Virginia / Dave Harp

Path — A guide, slowly leading visitors deeper into the space and giving them a journey to follow.

Naval Cemetery Landscape, Brooklyn, NY. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Maureen Porto

Destination — An end point to which the path leads. In Sacred Places, this is often the Nature Sacred bench, which holds a waterproof journal to collect the thoughts and musings of visitors to the space.

A Sacred Place at The League for People with Disabilities, Baltimore, Maryland. Anne E. Gleeson with Agency Environmental Restoration, Inc.

Surround — A design feature that creates the sensation of being embraced and sheltered within the space — a feeling of refuge and safety.


Healing Garden and Labyrinth at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Baltimore, Maryland. J. Christopher Batten / Neha Srinivasan

In the paper, we share images, examples, of how these elements have been interpreted by communities in their Sacred Places. For instance, at the Sacred Place at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church, Virginia, peace poles decorated in the many languages of the diverse immigrant community around the church serve as the portal into the space. And at the Sacred Place at Brooklyn’s Naval Cemetery Landscape, a boardwalk, a suspended path, leads visitors through a wildflower meadow, allowing them to experience it without disturbing the former burial grounds and native plants growing beneath their feet.

More examples of the interpretations of these design elements can be found in the paper as well as on our website.

We believe the research and guidance laid out in this paper, coupled with a landscape architect’s own experience, can lead to the creation of more green spaces that truly improve society on multiple fronts. As advocates for nature, the planet and people, landscape architects are in an ideal position to communicate to clients and partners the crucial need to value and prioritize green space in our built environments.

Download the paper.

If you are interested in collaborating with us, or serving as a design advisor, we invite you to connect with us.

Alden E. Stoner is CEO of Nature Sacred. She served on Nature Sacred’s board for nearly 15 years before transitioning to CEO.

Best Books of 2021

250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know / Birkhäuser

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:

250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know
Birkhäuser, 2021

Landscape architect B. Cannon Ivers, the London-based director of LDA Design, was inspired by architecture critic and educator Michael Sorkin, who authored 250 Things an Architect Should Know and passed away from COVID-19 in 2020. Ivers brings together 50 leading landscape architects, designers, and educators from around the world, including Anita Berrizbeita, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, James Corner, ASLA, Gina Ford, FASLA, Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and Sara Zewde, who each offer five brief musings, exhortations, poems, or reminders, accompanied by an image. Of the 250 things included: “Know when to throw confetti,” by Martí Franch; “Bitches get stuff done,” by Kate Orff, FASLA; and “Waterscape urbanism as the way forward” by Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA.

A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy / Island Press

A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy
Island Press, 2021

“Everyone should read this book [by Carolyn Kousky, Billy Fleming, ASLA, and Alan M. Berger] to see how the field of landscape architecture might help cities adapt to a changing climate, particularly with new federally-funded infrastructure investments. Each chapter of this book reaches beyond the conventional limits of our professional knowledge, by degrees or by leaps,” writes Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture, environmental planning, and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley in her review. “The most important bar this anthology has set for other books about adaptation is to place questions about funding and policy side-by-side with design proposals. For setting that bar higher, we should all thank the editors.” Read the full review.

Dynamic Geographies / Barbara Wilks, ORO Editions

Dynamic Geographies
ORO Editions, 2021

Barbara Wilks, FASLA, founding principal of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture, shares her firm’s work in this new monograph filled with inviting images. In her review, Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA, writes: “As our climate shifts in increasingly surprising ways, the landscape architect’s challenge is to predict how and at what rate our world will change and to create designs that will adapt accordingly. Perhaps, like Wilks argues, allowing for nature’s agency is the key to effective adaptation.” Read the full review.

Ecoregional Green Roofs: Theory and Application in the Western USA and Canada / Springer

Ecoregional Green Roofs: Theory and Application in the Western USA and Canada
Springer, 2021

This comprehensive, 635-page how-to guide by Bruce Dvorak, ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M University, and a slew of contributors — the rare book that wins an ASLA Professional Research Honor Award — is for any landscape architect or designer serious about integrating biodiversity into their green roof projects. In the forward, landscape architect David Yocca, FASLA, chair of the Green Infrastructure Foundation, says the book makes the case for “greater exploration, trials, and research for ecological surfaces in the face of a rapidly changing climate and substantial investment in the renewal of our cities over the next 50 years and beyond. It is also a satisfying read that ties together often disparate concepts, uniting ecology, technology, and long-term maintenance and stewardship. The [book] makes very real some of the bold visions of future green neighborhoods, villages, and cities…”

København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces / © Edition DETAIL, Munich

København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces
DETAIL, 2021

“København (Copenhagen), the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of many landscape architects and planners’ minds for both its groundbreaking moves towards sustainability and cutting-edge public spaces, bicycle culture, architecture, and food scenes.” In his review, John Bela, ASLA, said “the many innovative ideas and projects described in this book, and the exploration of some of the values and motivations that drive the work, are what make København a valuable resource for landscape architects and planners in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.” Read the full review.

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America / MoMA

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America
Museum of Modern Art, 2021

Sean Anderson, associate professor at Cornell University, and Mabel O. Wilson, professor at Columbia University and winner of this year’s Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum, are co-curators of a ground-breaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City that issued a “creative challenge” in the form of case studies in ten American cities, which aim to “re-conceive and reconstruct our built environment rather than continue giving shape to buildings, infrastructure, and urban plans that have, for generations, embodied and sustained anti-Black racism.” Walter Hood, ASLA, contributed his multimedia art work Black Towers / Black Power, imagining a set of ten 30-story skyscrapers in Oakland, California for non-profit organizations.

Resilient City: Landscape Architecture for Climate Change / Birkhäuser

Resilient City: Landscape Architecture for Climate Change
Birkhäuser, 2021

Thankfully, Birkhäuser has translated this new book by Elke Mertens, a professor of landscape sciences and geomatics at the Neubrandenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, into English. A dive into 11 in-depth case studies of cities across North and South America, this well-researched book makes the case for landscape architecture as the new infrastructure cities need to adapt to climate change. Mertens gets to the heart of the transformation that needs to happen: “Making cities more resilient means equipping them so that extreme climatic and weather events do not have a lasting impact on the inhabitants and infrastructure of a city, but that urban functions can be resumed, or at least rapidly restored, without permanent impairment.”

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World Atria / One Signal Publishers

Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World
Atria / One Signal Publishers, 2021

Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, and an evangelical Christian living in a conservative part of Texas, outlines how to have meaningful, impactful conversations about climate change with people of different politics, beliefs, and backgrounds. Like a true scientist, she assembles evidence about what approaches work in communicating climate change, and also relays her own successes and failures. She calls for avoiding shaming people into changing their views: “When others attempt to impose their value system on us, we understand, fundamentally, that it is about making themselves feel better at our expense.” Hayhoe also says to avoid spending time trying to persuade the 7 percent of the U.S. population who can be characterized as angry climate “dismissives.”

Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind / Island Press

Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind
Island Press, 2021

As school communities continue to grapple with gun violence, racism, drugs, and COVID-19, which all undermine a sense of safety and in turn inhibit growth and development, Claire Latané, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and former Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellow for Leadership and Innovation, has written a timely, critically important volume on how to incorporate nature-based solutions to improve mental, social, and physical health on school campuses. Latané methodically builds her argument for designing healthy, green learning environments for young people, with spot-on case studies and research. This book should be read by every educational policymaker, school superintendent, and PTA group — and every landscape architect who wants to help them.

Serious Fun: The Landscapes of Claude Cormier / ORO Editions

Serious Fun: The Landscapes of Claude Cormier
ORO Editions, 2021

Marc Trieb and Susan Herrington have managed to do justice to Canadian landscape architect Claude Cormier’s bold, often humorous landscapes, which they argue are far from frivolous, but instead rooted in serious technical and ecological considerations. Landscape and public art projects designed by Cormier and his team offer a rich exploration of “kitsch and camp, gender, technical and biological expertise, and political, environmental, aesthetic, and humanistic aspects.” Immersive photography of the playful Sugar Beach and Berczy Park, with its pop-art dog sculpture fountain, in Toronto, and 18 Shades of Gay, a celebration of Montréal’s gayborhood, are complemented by those of his deeply ecological design at Evergreen Brick Works.

Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America / Applied Research + Design, ORO Editions

Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America
Applied Research + Design, ORO Editions, 2021

Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA, said this book by Maria Bellalta, ASLA, dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the Boston Architectural College, is “a welcome addition to the growing number of publications on the social justice-oriented form of urbanism, architecture, and public space emanating from Medellín and Colombia. The fact that the book avoids a design focus is refreshing. Social Urbanism instead targets the social and political processes that enabled these projects to exist.” Read the full review.

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.

Learning from Copenhagen: A Focus on Everyday Life

København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces / © Edition DETAIL, Munich

By John Bela, ASLA

København (Copenhagen), the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of many landscape architects and planners’ minds for both its groundbreaking moves towards sustainability and cutting-edge public spaces, bicycle culture, architecture, and food scenes.

Having spent a significant amount of time in the city over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to begin to get to know the city and its people. One of the striking things about the city, perceptible in even my time there, is its continued trajectory of improvement. A chorus of people working diligently for decades to optimize the city for the everyday lives of its inhabitants have been laying the groundwork for what is possible today. I’ve been in Copenhagen in every season — in the depths of winter when the term Hygge takes on a deeper meaning and the scant hours of sunlight and the chilly winds inspire the strong desire to gather together by the soft light of a fire or candlelight to pass the dark hours. And during the summer months when the long hours of sunlight inspire a collective feeling of exultation and the city’s public spaces: the streets, parks, plazas, waterfront, and the harbor itself are teeming with life and energy. This was not so 20 or 30 years ago. The character of the city has radically changed and the new book København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces, edited by Sandra Hofmeister, beautifully captures the new spirit of the city.

The book features many places in the Danish capital that have made a significant impact in public space and public life over the past several decades and groups them into four chapters: public spaces, sports and leisure, culture and education, and housing. Well-illustrated project descriptions are complemented by a series of interviews and essays with some of the most prominent and thoughtful designers part of the city’s design scene today.

One of the many featured projects in the public spaces section of the book offers a useful inspiration for what could be possible in U.S. cities if we recognize the value of urban spaces now occupied by parking and remake them in ways that draw public life, commerce, and play.

The Flying Carpet: Israel’s Plads (Israel Square) is a great example of the transformation of public spaces taking place in Copenhagen over several decades. A former vegetable market site near one of the busiest transit stations had degenerated into a parking lot and eyesore. The municipality led the transformation of the site by erecting two covered market halls (the wonderful Torvehallerne) and a public plaza that hosts a weekend farmers market.

Across the street, the city issued a design brief outlining that the former parking lot should be converted into a new public space. The winning competition by Cobe, a Copenhagen-based multidisciplinary planning and design firm composed of landscape architects, planners, and architects, envisaged a “flying carpet” across the entire square. The cars would be “swept under the rug” with underground parking. In the completed design, organically shaped areas punched out of a neatly paved surface provide a variety of public recreational functions. As one the city’s largest new public spaces, Israel Plads is an “informal uncoded space that enables the public to enjoy urban life.”

Israel’s Plads by Cobe, Sweco Architects / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

What you don’t get from the beautiful images and plans featured in the project description — and what is so useful for those of us in the planning and design professions — is covered in an essay that follows. The lead designer for the plaza, Dan Stubbergard from Cobe, illuminates some the underlying processes and struggles that were fought and won and resulted in a new plaza that functions as a diverse and active public space.

Stubbergard notes that “infrastructure had a very important role in defining our cities from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Public spaces and zones in between buildings became carspaces, and this affected everyday life. But today we know that we have to combine infrastructure with the public quality of urban space. Be it a bicycle parking lot, a metro station, or a streetscape, you need to insist that all infrastructure is also a social and public space.”

Cobe has been leading some of the most impactful urban design efforts in Copenhagen. Their approach to Israel’s Plads reflects the deeply collaborative and creative approach of the practice that co-designs with communities. Dan continues: “Israels Plads is the biggest public space in Copenhagen, but it’s also a schoolyard shared by two schools – we argued it should be an open space nevertheless…We created a discrete boundary and that’s how we persuaded the school to have a safe zone in the middle of the city and an open environment at the same time. The challenge for [landscape] architects is to offer new ways of living together and to foster a lively everyday life.”

Swimming in the Harbor

You can’t comprehend Copenhagen today without understanding its changing relationship to the water. The book’s sports and leisure section describes one of the city’s newest ways to interact with the water: the Kalvebog Bolge (Kalvebod Waves). “An undulating sculptural promenade…the complex stretches out over the water like a park landscape, leading back to land with walkways that rise to different levels. Benches, play areas, and lookout points invite visitors to linger. What may seem coincidental follows a precise plan. Rough winds in the exposed location were considered in the positioning, as well as the course of the sun and the shadows created by surrounding buildings.”

As is typical of the projects described in the book, the space combines various programs in interesting ways. The “wave” stacks many functions: a kayak and canoe club, a swimming basin, a floating mini-hotel for canoeists, and a platform for cultural events all come together in this prominent harborside location. Furthermore, “the site’s cradle to cradle approach ensures that all materials can be separated by type at the end of their service life so they can be recycled or reused.”

Kalvebod Bolge by Urban Agency, JDS architects / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

The Kalvebod Wave harbor bath and others like it in different parts of the city are emblematic of the radical transformation that has occurred regarding the city’s relationship to the water. As in many former industrial waterfronts, the harbor water, as recently as the 1980’s, was polluted and dangerous, and one would not conceive of diving into it headlong as you see so many young and old people doing today.

In an essay, Hofmeister unpacks the process of transforming both the physical quality of the water and the harborfront as well as its mental image in the mind of Copenhageners. “With the shift from an industrial city to an eco-conscious city not only has the quality of life improved, but also the water quality…thanks to targeted measures in wastewater management and modernization of the sewage system. Today living on the waterfront is integral to the city’s image.”

These critical water quality improvements laid the foundation for a fundamental restructuring of the city’s relationship and orientation to the waterfront and a re-conception of the harbor from the “back of the city” to a blue-green central park. So many of the projects featured in the book show how to take advantage of this new orientation. The areas along the harbor offer high quality waterfront living and opportunities to swim or gather to watch the sunset. This is where the city opens up to offer wide views. The city’s master plans stipulate that all harborfront areas must not only be accessible to the public but also enlivened by the public.

Kroyers Plads by Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects, Cobe / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

This orientation of the city around the harbor as its central park is enabled by a steadily growing set of landscape, open space, pedestrian, and bike circulation connections around and across the harbor that provide continuous access around the water’s edge and have opened up new areas for the city’s famous pedestrian and bicycle culture. There are important lessons here for landscape architects and planners working in the U.S.

The first is that protecting, enhancing, and restoring the ecological health of extant water bodies and open spaces is crucial for laying the groundwork for future public access and enjoyment. The second is that a powerful vision in the form of a masterplan framework must be established that can live beyond short-term political cycles to guide the actions of many actors over time. The third is that landscape architects must conceive of each intervention, even if it is a small piece of a larger puzzle, as contributing to the realization of the larger vision that will, eventually, result in a radical transformation of place.

The first carbon-neutral capital

Copenhagen, as in many cities with ambitious leaders across the globe, is leading the way towards a more equitable and sustainable future for its inhabitants. By 2025, Copenhagen is to be the first-ever carbon-neutral capital city. Switching from cars to bicycles plays a decisive role.

As described in an essay on cycling culture and quality of life, the city’s bicycle culture is well known to urbanists throughout the world, and it’s a powerful experience to be immersed in it. But what is less well known are the other factors that contribute to making Copenhagen a city where you can actually live without a car, such as the provision of dense, human-scale, compact, and transit-connected urban infill for areas of new development and providing citizens with mobility choice in the form of a world-class transit system. As the city gradually implemented and expanded its famous bicycle infrastructure, there has been commensurate major investment in expanding mass transit, including the brand new Cityringen line completed in 2019.

The wonderful essay by Jacob Shoof unpacks the critical role of innovative public-private partnerships, a role played by redevelopment agencies in the U.S. These partnerships have been charged with re-imagining some of the city’s most valuable port lands and new development areas, financing the construction of major public transport projects such as the Cityringen, as well as leading the re-imagining of the city’s largest new development area, Nordhavn, under its masterplan by Cobe.

Back to the Water, Jakob Shoof, with image of Nordhavn / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

One essay goes into the details of one private-public partnership focused on the port: “The City of Copenhagen and the Danish state the laid foundations for this in 2007 with the founding of the project development company By & Havn (City and Harbour)…the new company has two main tasks: to manage and regulate the use of Copenhagen’s port waters and shore facilities and to promote the conversion of disused port areas…the company operates like a private company largely free from political influence, and can therefore pursue long-term strategies…the business model of By & Havn is to use sales proceeds [of port lands] to build public infrastructure in the newly developed areas. The new Cityringen (City Circle line) of the Copenhagen Metro has been running under the city since 2019 and was also planned by By & Havn. In order to pre-refinance the development of the infrastructure without having to rush property sales the company has taken out long-term loans, using land in its possession as security.”

Innovative financial models and thoughtful long-term planning for public infrastructure investment from bicycle lanes to the new underground metro line are critical to making a thriving and successful public realm as well as incentivizing active mobility and transit use, and therefore enabling the city to meet their ambitious long-term sustainability goals

Dense, diverse, and green. Is it possible?

As with so many urban areas around the globe, Copenhagen is experiencing an urban renaissance as more people choose to reside in dense, amenity rich, and socially diverse urban neighborhoods. But how has the city managed to maintain affordability and access for people at the beginning of their careers or those who are just forming families? So many areas in the U.S. experiencing this same urban renaissance are characterized by significant social conflict due to rapid gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.

A final theme that emerges in the book is the role of an engaged citizenry in generating grassroots-level action to provide a strong political mandate for the municipality and the design community to work for things like mobility choice and affordable housing. For instance, part of the less well-known story of the city’s bicycle culture, which reemerged in the 1970’s after going into decline in the age of the automobile, are the massive protests and collective action in response to the 1970’s oil crisis that inspired city leaders to take seriously the role of the bicycle in urban mobility.

And this level of community engagement has also shaped the city’s approach to housing. Since the late 1960’s, the city’s different forms of communal living have drawn international attention. The final chapter of the book focused on housing describes several of the innovative and beautifully well-designed housing complexes on the re-energized harborfront as well as some excellent examples of co-housing, a trend which is growing in popularity globally and was featured prominently in this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition theme: “How will we live together?”

One of the defining characteristics of Copenhagen’s inner city housing stock is the traditional form of the perimeter block that surrounds a shared green space. These forms can accommodate a variety of functions — from a safe play area for children, food producing gardens, bicycle parking, and larger community gatherings. These collectively owned and managed semi-private green spaces are rare in the U.S., but they contribute significantly to the quality of life in Copenhagen and are a major factor in attracting and retaining young families within the urban core.

The Lange End Co-housing project by Dorte Mandrup is a wonderful, contemporary interpretation of this traditional perimeter block with a large, internal shared green space. Mandrup describes how this happened: “The central aim of the project was to establish a community accommodating a range of age and occupational groups, cultural backgrounds, and ways of living. To determine the different spatial requirements – common areas for meeting and communication, but also more private areas – an extensive participatory process was carried out, with various workshops held between the planners and future residents.”

Lang Eng Cohousing by Dorte Mandrup / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich
Lang Eng Cohousing by Dorte Mandrup / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

Hofmeister’s interview with Mandrup reveals the deeper motivations behind the work. “We already have numerous co-housing situations for very specialized groups – elderly people, students, or young families. My dream is that we can mix the different groups much more and build co-housing spaces that reflect the whole society – singles and families, old and young people.” And in a commentary on the next challenges the city faces, Mandrup says: “I would also wish that the city of Copenhagen would move forward with densification without simply doing things on a larger scale. We have to find better solutions to densify our cities than simply higher buildings. Densification on a small [human?] scale – that’s a real challenge for the future!”

Landscape architects have a critical role to play in the design of new housing areas in our urban neighborhoods. We can ensure there is a clear hierarchy of spaces from public to semi-public to private open spaces. Establishing this hierarchy and definition of whom these spaces are designed to serve is often overlooked but is crucial for achieving quality and livability in dense urban environments.

A beacon of sustainable urbanism

The many innovative ideas and projects described in this book and the exploration of some of the values and motivations that drive the work are what make this book a valuable resource for landscape architects and planners in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.

We can now point to these works and say, look what is possible if we work together for the common good of our communities! The City of Copenhagen brings together innovations in public participation, long term planning, finance, and a socially engaged design community to create the sustainable city of the future for residents today. It’s no wonder city leaders and design professionals around the globe are taking notice!

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

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (November 16-30)

“Borrowed Scenery” at the Japanese Friendship Garden by Kristi Lin / Beto Soto, KPBS.org

Meet Artist Kristi Lin: Bringing a Natural Balance — 11/29/21, The San Diego Union-Tribune
“Like many local artists, Lin grew up knowing she had artistic inclinations, but was worried about the financial impracticalities that come with being a working artist. In the field of landscape architecture, she says she found that balance; a profession that allows her to be creative and inspired while also paying the bills.”

How to Design a City for Sloths — 11/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“As pedestrians, sloths do not walk as much as ooze, inching forward commando-style with their bellies to the ground, as if trying to dodge a museum’s laser-security system. From a distance, the 10 long minutes it takes an average sloth to walk across the street might look more like the end of a yoga class.”

Car-Free Transportation Gets Boost from U.S. Grant Program — 11/29/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“A program that primarily funded highways during the Trump administration has pivoted away from roads in its new disbursement, marking a potential shift in infrastructure spending.”

Africa’s Rising Cities — 11/19/21, The Washington Post
“Several recent studies project that by the end of this century, Africa will be the only continent experiencing population growth. Thirteen of the world’s 20 biggest urban areas will be in Africa — up from just two today — as will more than a third of the world’s population.”

Minneapolis’ Newest Park Is Like a Front Porch on the Mississippi River — 11/17/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Damon Farber Landscape Architects led the design team with HGA designing the pavilion, MacDonald and Mack as historic consultants, and the 106 Group as archaeologists. The Healing Place Collaborative brought in Dakota artists and language experts to design covers for the fire pits and interpret the rainwater collection and use of Native plants.”

Canada’s LGBTQ2+ National Monument Is Moving Ahead, and Here Are the Shortlisted Proposals — 11/16/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The monument, which is meant to ‘educate, memorialize, celebrate, and inspire,’ will not only acknowledge the ‘enduring injury and injustice’ faced by Canada’s LGBTQ2+ communities, it will also set out to confront ‘the abuse perpetrated by the Canadian state,’ chief among these abuses being the LGBT Purge.”

This Stunning High-Rise Would Absorb More Carbon Dioxide Than It Produces
— 11/15/21, Fast Company Design
“Wrapping the buildings are algae-filled facades that produce biofuels that can power the building. Inside, structural components made of biological materials and insulation made from hemp sequester carbon throughout the building’s lifetime. Built-in direct air capture systems pull CO2 out of the air and either store it or make it available for industrial use.”