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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASLA Chinatown Green Street / Design Workshop

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

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

Building Real-World Community with Minecraft

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

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

According to Deirdre Quarnstrom: absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The playground they designed is now under construction.

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

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

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

Experience Brooklyn Bridge Park in Virtual Reality

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

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

Viewing Options

Option 1: Watch a 360 Video on YouTube

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

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

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

Go to settings and set the resolution to 2610s.

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

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

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

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

Samsung Gear VR / Samsung
Samsung Gear VR / Samsung

Why Brooklyn Bridge Park?

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

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

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

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

Why Virtual Reality?

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

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

Why did ASLA make this VR film?

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

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

Why should landscape architects use VR?

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

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

ASLA VR Film Credits

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

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

Design with Nurture: Women’s Leadership in Landscape Architecture

DWN
Design with Nurture / ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dozer.jpg
Image courtesy Michelle Arab

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

Parks Are a Critical Solution to Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramblas, Barcelona / Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing for the Other Four Senses

The_Senses_cover_final_small
The Senses: Design Beyond Vision / Princeton Architectural Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Romantic Kind of Resilient Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unity Park Anchors Equitable Development in Greenville

Unity Park / MKSK Studios

New reconciliation parks in the South — like the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, Alabama — are explicitly designed to bring together previously-segregated communities. But the new Unity Park in Greenville, South Carolina, goes a step further: it will not only bridge communities but also actually merge two once-segregated parks. Meadowbrook Park, which was once white-only, and Mayberry Park, a smaller green space designated for African Americans, will come together in the new 60-acre Unity Park while still maintaining their distinct histories and identities. This inclusive, $40-million green space is expected to open in 2020.

According to Darren Meyer, ASLA, principal at Ohio-based MKSK Studios, an urban design and landscape architecture firm, the park comes out of a broader planning process for the Reedy River Development Area, an area just west of downtown Greenville. The goal for the city is to create more equitable downtown neighborhoods, with the new park at the center.

In an interview, Meyer said the park is only one component of a new “community character plan” for a 350-acre district that includes form-based code, mixed-use developments, affordable housing, and transportation. A ring of new affordable housing will be built around the park, in an attempt to prevent Unity Park from inadvertently becoming a gentrifying force that displaces the existing community.

According to Meyer, the city has increased investment into its affordable housing trust fund, which is also receiving private and philanthropic funds. The first round of affordable housing is now being built while work begins on the underlying park infrastructure.

Unity Park will include a 120-feet-tall observation tower, which will act as a beacon at night; a great lawn; nature and “destination” playgrounds; a gathering space and visitors center; and pedestrian bridge to improve connectivity.

Unity Park observation tower / MKSK Studios
Unity Park great lawn / MKSK Studios
Destination playground / MKSK Studios
Unity Park gathering space / MKSK Studios
Unity Park pedestrian bridge / MKSK Studios

The city brought an inclusive, community-based planning effort that won approval from African American communities along the park. Greenville News reports that “Mary Duckett, head of the traditionally low-income and African-American Southernside neighborhood association….has been satisfied that its voice was heard and that the park will be one that is welcoming for all.”

Meyer said the planning process was viewed as successful because project leaders “put a tremendous amount of effort into cultivating good relationships. They knew that is really the foundation of trust and a key part to inclusive decision-making.”

Unity Park / MKSK Studios

As part of neighborhood planning and outreach, the city brought in a fire truck that kids could play on; a mobile recreation vehicle, with sports play equipment; and hosted a cook-out for 300 community residents. “These were great events designed to build community.”

MKSK also coordinated planning and design community meetings, with the goal of collecting stories, including those about the African American minor league baseball team that plays in Mayberry Park, and incorporating them into an authentic design. That led to a temporary installation — a mosaic of names of baseball players set into steps leading to the baseball field.

Meyer said the park is not just about re-connecting once-segregated parks, but also about re-connecting the community to a lost river ecosystem. Some 2,000-feet of the Reedy River that runs through the park will be taken out of its concrete channel and become a showpiece of ecological restoration. MKSK will significantly widen the riparian corridor and treat the floodplain in the park as an ecological system.

Unity Park view of the wetlands and river / MKSK Studios

MKSK made the case to city leaders that “the health of the river is tied to the health of the community. There is a quantifiable public health benefit to bringing back the river and wetlands. Beyond the ecological uplift, there is also a great educational opportunity.”

Read more about the park in Greenville News.

To Survive Climate Change, Coastal Cities Need Strong Communities

Extreme Cities / Sierra Club

Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change believes cities, which now hold 70 percent of the world’s population, are “ground zero” for climate change. This is because they contribute the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and are also the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Mega cities, which are mostly found in coastal areas, are not “adequately prepared for the floods that will increasingly menace their shores.” Instead, the pursuit of development-as-usual — with the seemingly-unending growth of luxury condos and insulated “live work play” communities — means many coastal cities have effectively stuck their heads in the sand. Efforts to bolster cities’ protections through resilient planning and design have largely been superficial and won’t protect the most vulnerable.

Despite the warning signs of impacts to come, like Hurricane Sandy in the Tri-state region, cities remain focused on growth, growth, growth. Dawson cites the economist David Harvey, who argues that a “‘healthy’ capitalist economy must expand at annual rate of 3 percent. If it ceases to do so, it goes into crisis, as it did in 2008.”

In our capitalist system, continuous growth has resulted in great gains, so the world is now “awash with ‘surplus liquity'” or excess capital. And all of that money needs a place to go: “Capital has turned to the city, where fixed plots of land promise to increase in value as more of the world’s population migrates to urban centers. Real-estate speculation provides a way for economies to grow as production declines. In other words, the city is a growth machine, and speculative real estate development functions as a sink for surplus capital. Sixty percent of global wealth today is invested in real estate.”

The resulting real estate boom, and rise in housing costs, can be seen everywhere from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles to Shanghai. And for Dawson, it’s no accident that coastal cities are also the starting point for mass movements fighting inequality, like Occupy Wall Street, which began in NYC’s Zuccotti Park with its call to heed the “99 percent,” and the mass protests that began in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.

Over-development in coastal cities has caused other problems beyond increasing social tensions and inequities. Market forces are driving development to “produce greater risk, vulnerability, and environmental disasters.” Cities are not only wrecking their immediate environments, but also causing deforestation, with their demand for commodities, and climate change, with their incredible heating and cooling needs, urban industries, and inefficient transportation systems. “As Mike Davis outs it, ‘city life is rapidly destroying the ecological niche — Holocene climate stability — which made its evolution into complexity possible.”

The “luxury city” — the most-elite slice of urban life — is even more destructive. In New York City, high-end condos are the most polluting. “In a report entitled Elite Emissions, the Climate Works for All coalition notes that ‘a mere two percent of the city’s one million buildings use 45 percent of all the city’s energy.”

While he sprinkles in cases from Jakarta, New Orleans, Rotterdam, and other cities, Dawson mostly focuses on New York City, where he examines how the city’s leadership and communities have responded to increased vulnerability to climate change. He is largely critical of governmental efforts, but sees hope in how local community groups have formed to devise solutions, like the Sandy Regional Assembly, an alliance of forty groups that came together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to create a more equitable city-wide resilience strategy.

He is particularly critical of PlaNYC, a comprehensive planning effort by the administration of mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 to address climate change. It’s described as “an effort to promote an urban sustainability fix, a solution to capitalism’s periodic crises of accumulation that combines rampant real estate speculation with a variety of enticing yet relatively superficial greening initiatives.”

While the Bloomberg administration pushed for emissions reductions through PlaNYC — largely through energy-efficient buildings and switching from coal to natural gas — it also promoted waterfront development at a massive scale in Lower Manhattan, far west side, and in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, DUMBO, Red Hook, Gowanus, and Coney Island. All this waterfront development had the unfortunate side effect of making coastal communities even more vulnerable.

Dawson argues that in reality, a serious climate plan “would involve moving people and buildings out of flood zones,” an approach the Bloomberg administration opposed as it ran counter to their “ambitious — and lucrative — plans for developing the city’s nearly 600 miles of waterfront.” Others called for the city to buy up waterfront property in order to prevent development — reserving these spaces as green buffers, which also failed to occur.

In later chapters, Dawson describes how environmental “blowback” is already having a major impact on coastal cities. As the estuaries upon which coastal megacities are built are being destroyed, it’s becoming even clearer the vital ecological role those underlying systems play.

Natural systems that once served as critical buffers to storm surges — like Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York — are degrading. And he argues “the transformation of devalued landscapes like Jamaica Bay’s marshes has also exposed nearby residents to even greater risk.” While restoration efforts are underway, there is no guarantee of success given the conditions of the area are shifting so fast with climate change.

In a chapter entitled “the Jargon of Resilience,” Dawson warns against the “utopian hopes of modern architects and urban planners,” particularly those associated with the Rebuild by Design program initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation, because they create a “false sense of security, leading people to build up risk in fundamentally unsustainable sites.”

He argues projects that came out of Rebuild by Design effort, like the Big U in Lower Manhattan, which will use parks made of berms and flood gates to protect the financial district and other neighborhoods, “actually increase risk rather than diminishing it.” Furthermore, the BIG U will just displace water to other places: “Where will the water that the BIG U turns aside go? It is likely to end up in adjacent communities with large poor populations such as Red Hook, where Hurricane Sandy hit public housing particularly hard.”

Dawson appreciates the ecological logic of the much-celebrated Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE Landscape Architecture but argues that it “confronts a number of intractable environmental problems that are likely to make it unsustainable in the long term.”

Dawson’s essential critique is that too much of the climate adaptation and resilience efforts of city governments in New York City and elsewhere have been top-down, without much real community input. He believes truly equitable resilience planning can only come if strong local communities make their voices heard. Socially-resilient communities can demand “radical adaptation” — “new forms of collective, democratic planning.” Empowered, informed communities can figure out the resilient plans and designs they need to protect themselves. And only these communities can survive the next storm and rebuild.

Waking up to the new realities requires getting a clear view of the risks — and even increasing exposure to them. For Dawson, landscape architects like Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, and educators like University of Pennslvania landscape architecture professor Anuradha Matur, and Harvard University planner Dilip da Cunha potentially have the answers, with their call for “soft” defenses that would buffer communities from storms but also be visible and integrated into the ecosystems of the coastal city.

The mega-city of the near future can build “more permeable borders, allowing for natural flux and for the flourishing of inter-tidal habitats such as wetlands and marshes.” This vision will require a re-balancing between city and nature, a retreat from high-risk areas, along with an end to luxury development on waterfronts.

Co-Designing with Kids

Blessed Sacrament playground tree planting / Craig Glover, London Free Press

Three case studies from an upcoming book on co-designing with children were presented at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) in Oklahoma City. An environmental designer, landscape architect, and landscape educator explained how kids — if properly motivated and trained — can lead planning and design processes. Working within a framework and with a motivated youth coordinator, kids of all ages can identify and solve design challenges.

Janet Loebach, an environmental designer based in Toronto, partnered with a group of mostly-immigrant kids at Blessed Sacrament school in London, Ontario, to create a new combined playground and garden. The school grounds were redesigned not only as a space for students and teachers but also as a park for the neighborhood.

The space is alongside a busy four-lane road that averages 30,000 cars a day, and where more than one car has plowed through the fence. Being so close to a busy arterial road is not only dangerous but also unhealthy for the kids — as exhaust fumes fill play spaces. With a $25,000 grant from the London Community Foundation, Loebach organized a project with students to create a green buffer of large trees for the new community space.

Over three months, a group comprised of 24 grade-8 students, aged 12-13 — that named themselves Green Direction — met for two hours a week over three months to create a design. They decided on “who’s doing what — the goals and processes. They were the primary researchers and designers.” Six groups of four students created designs, based in site measurements, inventory, and analysis; interviews with students and teachers; and activity and behavior mapping based on the age ranges of users.

The students created concept and bubble diagrams, scale drawings, and models; gave presentations and collected feedback; and undertook costing exercises. At the end of the process, Loebach synthesized the priority elements and refined the merged design.

Loebach said the process showed “youth benefit from authentic engagement and involvement in decision making around place-making. Kids can articulate needs and designs when they are given the proper tools.”

The resulting landscape had large shade trees, meandering paths, a pergola, and a vegetable garden. While used by all students, it has become especially useful for kids who are struggling, who need a “green time-out.” They are sent to water the garden for 15 minutes and benefit from the time in nature.

Rebecca Colbert, a landscape architect with MIG’s Denver office, explained how lottery funds in Colorado have been set aside for Great Outdoors Colorado, a program to preserve and protect natural resources and also improve children’s connection with nature. A $14 million grant program required applying communities to form diverse coalitions and undertake a collaborative planning process that is “youth-led or driven.” Initial planning grants of $75,000-100,000 led to implementation grants for the winners.

In Garfield county, Colorado — a struggling area an hour west of Vail with a “boom bust extraction economy” that includes the towns of Silt, Rifle, and New Castle — Colbert served as a youth engagement consultant with a coalition putting together a grant application. The team’s members included representatives from non-profits and state education, health, parks, and wildlife departments. A youth advisory council was formed, in which each high school student was paid a stipend of $1,000 over 9 months, all coordinated by an adult liaison.

Garfield county flattops / Colorado State University

The youth council undertook a multi-stage process, starting with team building, tours of places where children could better connect with nature, and outreach to other students. At libraries, they created a visioning process and mapped the barriers to accessing nature. They were creative about bringing other kids into the process: smaller children were asked to draw their favorite things in nature, and gamers at home were reached via an online survey in English and Spanish.

The process identified key goals for activity in nature, which included: team sports, cycling, walking and biking, nature play, camping, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, archery, and horse-back riding. The youth group also found the obstacles preventing deeper engagement with these activities: “not having the right gear or know-how, or lack of access or funds.”

The youth council presented their recommended projects and programs to decision makers. The team ended up winning a $1.5 million grant, which has gone to an outdoor classroom featuring nature play, wilderness skills training, expeditions for kids along the Colorado River, and mentorship programs for outdoor jobs. Colbert said the experience for the youth council members was a “good learning experience — their voices were heard and they made an impact as citizens.”

Lastly, Patsy Eubanks Owens, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Davis, explained how the Reach Youth Coalition, a group of 12-16 year-olds in Vacaville, California, came together to turn an abandoned railroad, which they had been using as a shortcut to get to school, into a safe, paved pathway for the community.

With financing from the Sierra Health Foundation, the group, assisted by a youth coordinator, started a campaign to improve the 3/4-mile Rocky Hill trail. “They were concerned that it was hard to navigate — it was so muddy they had to wear grocery bags on their feet to go to school. And it was unsafe — there were gang fights, and drug needles could be found near the homeless encampment.” Students traveling along the trail at all hours knew to go with a friend.

The coalition surveyed some 1,700 middle school students who use the trail, yielding short-term and long-term goals. According to Owens, a video produced by the coalition was critical to gaining support. “The video was a turning point. Before, the mayor didn’t even know the trail existed.” After the city council watched the video, they voted to allocate $75,000 to build a new trail.

In 2016, eight years after the coalition was formed, a new trail was finally dedicated. Neighbors and a church along the trail organized a clean-up, and new community gardens were planted. To date, some $230,000 was raised by the team, with in-kind support from neighbors and residents. Currently, only some areas are lit, but the entire length will be soon.

“Youth leadership changed the opinions of leaders. There is now a real pride in participation and place,” Owens said.