Summer Book Recommendations from Landscape Architects

The Book of Night Women
The Book of Night Women / Riverhead Books

It’s almost August, but there’s still plenty of time left to dive into some quality summer reading. We asked a few landscape architects to share books they’ve been enjoying. Check out their suggestions:

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal at DesignJones, LLC

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
“I have just finished reading The Book of Night Women this past 4th of July. This book is written by Marlon James, who won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. The Book of Night Women is a beautiful and lyrically-painful narrative about the lives and landscape of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation. If you are passionate about Faulkner and Morrison, then you will relish this book.”

Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, firmwide CEO at SWA Group

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

Ghettoside
Ghettoside / Spiegel & Grau

“A book that grew out of Los Angeles Times’ Jill Leovy’s reports on homicide and working the police beat from 2001 to 2012, Ghettoside takes the reader deep into the communities of south Los Angeles to understand why homicide rates are some of the highest in the country. Weaving together Los Angeles and U.S. history, perspectives from veteran LAPD detectives, scholars, and most importantly those living in Compton, Watts, and adjacent neighborhoods, Ghettoside provides a compelling piece that couldn’t be more timely and fiercely urgent as this country continues to face issues of race and violence, and the consequences of ignoring them.”

California by Kevin Starr
“Everything you wanted to know about California from a great historian. Starr gathers together everything that is most important, most fascinating, and most revealing about America’s 31st State.”

The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
“A playful and perplexing book that centers on a young Parisian researcher who lives inside his bathroom. As he sits in his tub meditating on existence, the people around him further enable his peculiar lifestyle, supporting his eccentric quest for immobility. But then a not-to-be missed opportunity arises and his stable world turns upside down.”

Shannon Nichol, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California by Laura Cunningham

a state of change
A State of Change / Heyday Books

“For the last twenty years, Laura Cunningham has been melding her scientific training – rigorously cataloguing species from her field work in California’s cities and roadsides – with her obvious artistic talent and intuition, painting fluent watercolors of the vanished places that she can now, naturally, picture in her mind. This book feels like her explorer-journal, each hard-earned page built up as she explores and documents a new landscape or vista found in a shockingly familiar, urbanized place that we thought we already knew.

This book is a modern-day reassurance that the age of exploration – and the age of the artist-naturalist – is not over. Perhaps, instead, our era, in which we separate science and art, facts and intuition, may be giving way to a more nuanced one that picks up where the explorer-naturalists left off.”

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, partner at Martha Schwartz Partners

The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway

collapse
The Collapse of Western Civilization / Columbia University Press

“The Collapse of Western Civilization is essential reading for anyone truly interested in sustainability and the global environment.”

Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture and planning, MIT

Toward an Urban Ecology by Kate Orff, ASLA

The Time of the Force Majeure by Helen and Newton Harrison

orff
Towards an Urban Ecology / The Monacelli Press

“Two brilliant new books are a call to action on urban ecology and climate change, with landscape as the principal medium. Kate Orff’s Toward an Urban Ecology is a presentation of ground-breaking projects by Scape, and the principles and strategies that underlie their success. In The Time of the Force Majeure, artists Newton and Helen Harrison describe their work on climate change, ecological design, and community engagement over the past five decades. The Harrisons design virtually every aspect of every project to ‘bring forth a new state of mind’ in themselves and their audience, and they employ ingenious strategies to accomplish this transformation. Human societies cannot successfully mitigate and adapt to the stresses of climate change without a new state of mind, and landscape architects and artists have an essential role to play. The Harrisons have been demonstrating this fact for more than forty years, Kate Orff and Scape more recently. Both books are required reading for landscape architects.”

Through Many Lenses: The Works of Capability Brown

Chatsworth / Gary Rogers, cropped.
Chatsworth (Cropped) / copyright Gary Rogers

This year is the 300th anniversary of famed English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s birth. To celebrate, the Landscape Foundation and Building Center in London have put together Lens on a Landscape Genius, an exhibition of over 100 photographs depicting highlights from the 150 landscapes of his that still exist, out of the 250 he planned or designed in the 18th century.

Compton Verney (cropped) / copyright James Kerr
Compton Verney (cropped) / copyright James Kerr

Brown is viewed as the quintessential English landscape architect, “as deeply embedded in the English character as the paintings of Turner and the poetry of Wordsworth.” He is known for projects of an immense scale: vast estates, including the Hampton Court Palace Gardens, Blenheim Palace, and the landscape of Highclere Castle, known today on television as Downtown Abbey. At many of these grand estates, he removed formal gardens and replaced them with undulating grasslands and constructed hills and serpentine rivers.

Highclere (cropped) / Allan Pollok-Morris
Highclere (cropped) / Allan Pollok-Morris

Brown created elegant, seemingly-simple landscapes that hid deeper complexity. On the website of the foundation that promotes the preservation of his work, they write: “His designs appear seamless owing to his use of the sunk fence or ‘ha-ha’ to confuse the eye into believing that different pieces of parkland, though managed and stocked quite differently, were one. His expansive lakes, at different levels and apparently unconnected, formed a single body of water as if a river through the landscape, that like the parkland itself, ran on indefinitely. This effortless coherence is taken for granted today.”

Dawn at Gatton Park (cropped) / copyright James Bruce
Dawn at Gatton Park (cropped) / copyright Matthew Bruce

While he was highly sought after in his life time, becoming the master gardener for Hampton Court, his reputation declined immediately after his death. His Picturesque style, which would influence Frederick Law Olmsted and others, fell out of favor in the face of Romanticism and later Modernism. His work was viewed as the anti-thesis of the geometric, formal works of French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, but both were long seen as out of style. His style, now known as the English Picturesque, has seen a resurgence though. This year, The Telegraph calls him “the world’s most famous landscape gardener.”

Deer on Rutting Stand (cropped) / copyright Derek Saint Romaine
Deer on Rutting Stand (cropped) / copyright Derek St. Romaine

The exhibition includes noteworthy UK-based landscape photographers such as: Andrew Lawson, Joe Cornish, Andrea Jones, Allan Pollok-Morris, Gary Rogers, Derek St. Romaine, Matthew Bruce,  Gareth Davies, James Kerr, Archie Miles, Gavin Kingcome, Simon Warner, Jacqui Hurst, Stephen Studd, James Smith, and, lastly, Steffie Shields, who has also just published a book of her photographs of his landscapes: Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape.

If in London, go see the exhibition before it closes on August 31.

Interview with Toody Maher on Co-Designing Parks with the Community

Toody Maher / SF Gate
Toody Maher / SF Gate


Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in Bay Area, California.

In the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California, which is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, you’ve created an exciting model, which combines community development, child development, play, and parks. What are the essential elements of a Pogo Park?

Any public space can be transformed into a Pogo Park. In essence, a Pogo Park is an amazing place, a magical place for children to play. There are five key elements. First of all, a Pogo Park must be staffed. You need someone there who clean the park, welcome folks as they come in, and make it a safe and welcoming gathering place for the community. Second, there needs to be an office there. The third is a rich play environment. We have to get away from plastic, static play equipment. Experts on play talk about how kids need loose parts and environments they can manipulate, so they can build their own things and explore. The key feature of a Pogo Park is a super-rich play environment. The fourth element is just basic amenities — a place to sit in the shade, a bathroom, and running water. And the last is to make it a hub of the community. We have the book mobile, farmer’s market, and visits from the National Park Service who want to show the kids a ranger tour. We’re just the place. We are the community hub.

If you’re knowledgeable about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, that’s the Bible for us. There’s certain things that you can do that are essential, but you can do it 500 or 5,000 ways.

The community were co-designers of Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Park. How did this work?

To give you some background: Elm Playlot was an existing park for 70 years, but it failed. The city has renovated it three times, and the latest in 2009 cost $300,000. We begged the city not to do it, but they went ahead because they had a grant. Within a week, somebody tried to burn it down.

Pogo Park started with a core team of eight: the Elm Playlot Action Committee (EPAC). The first person I met was Carmen Lee, who lives right next door to the park. I just went around knocking on doors and meeting folks. There were people who wouldn’t open the door. I would show up each day and they wouldn’t even say hello. From 2009 to 2016 the composition of EPAC has changed. It went from eight to six to ten to twelve to fourteen to seven. All of the members have deep ties to the Iron Triangle: they were born there, they live there. But the members of the same core team who started at the beginning have been through all seven years of the project.

What’s great is the power of incremental change. We avoided the usual process: the park fails, then you helicopter in, and, in one week’s time, there’s a new park, and then the mayor comes, and you cut the ribbon, and the moment that everyone leaves — the moment the 76-piece marching back leaves — the whole thing goes back to what it was, so nothing is really transformed. As some residents say, you can’t put a mink coat on a skunk. By coming in and putting this thing down, it doesn’t mean lives are going to change. Transformation needs to be deeper.

EPAC started working with the residents to reclaim the park. Before we got our $2 million state park grant to redo the park, I told the team about Burning Man in the Nevada desert, how folks build this mini city in a week. I said: “let’s do Burning Man in the Iron Triangle!” We went to Home Depot and bought a $2,000 3-foot fence and built a fence around Elm Playlot to claim the boundary. We came in each day and cleaned the park, so it was super clean. We brought in a shipping container we got from the Port of Richmond and built a little office inside the shipping container we could open each day. We put out our play materials and made our enriched play space. We rented a porta potty, which we covered in beautiful plants and artwork. And if somebody needed to go to the bathroom, they’d come up to somebody on our staff and we would let them in. Folks would come just to go to the bathroom, because the porta potty was tricked out. We bought the house next to the park for $50,000. And got a $300 fridge off Craigslist and became an official distribution point for the school free summer lunches. We served 9,000 meals one summer. We got into the space and claimed it.

Going back to how to involve the community: Elm Playlot came alive because people from the neighborhood went and worked there each day. They cleaned it, built things, or served as staff. As folks drive by, they could see something was changing. Everybody started to come by because they were like, “What you all doing next? Oh, this so great.” One thing I learned: If the community makes the changes themselves, then the change is deeper and felt more widely.

Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille
Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille

It wasn’t just like there was a one-week charrette. We did a five year one! As the great park designer, Susan Goltsman, FASLA, with MIG in Berkeley, said: “Great playgrounds are in a constant state of change.” They can’t just be static. To be alive, parks need to evolve. Pogo Park has been a living charrette.

Elm Playlot / Pogo Park
Elm Playlot / Pogo Park

How did the process of 3-D prototyping the park design work? And why do you think it was better than the typical approach with charrettes, maps, renderings?

The real language needed to communicate design is the opposite of what you need to understand a landscape architecture plan on paper. With a 3-D model, you get to see what’s coming in life size. You’re actually experiencing it. If we want to put a tree somewhere, we’ll just go out and buy a tree in a five gallon bucket and put it there, so people can actually say, “Oh, a tree’s there.” They can walk around and see spaces.

I’ve noticed that when I’m dealing with some landscape architects and designers, they come out with the dimensions of what something should be right away. They’ll say, “Oh, well, why don’t we put the door at three feet and this at two feet.” And they work all by numbers. But our approach is: “Do not impose a number.” First of all, mark it, and when it feels right, measure. That is the measurement that goes on the paper. So many times when design is done on paper, it looks good on paper, because it’s all math. But when you build it, there’s so many little things that were off. The spacing is usually off. The only way you can really get spacing is to do it.

Pogo Park involved the community in the actual construction of the park, paying neighbors of the park to build it. How did the process of co-developing the park with the community work?

We have put over $1 million in wages and contracts into the Iron Triangle. Everyone expects people who are poor and have no job to come in and volunteer. Everywhere I went, people said: “Oh, Toody, you and your volunteers.” No. Everyone was paid for their contribution.

We were also blessed to partner with Scientific Art Studio, which happens to have a 2-acre fabrication studio six blocks from our park in the Iron Triangle, to build the park. The guy who runs it — Ron Holthuysen — is a world famous designer of children’s play spaces. He’s the bomb. He just did a $3.5 million new playground for the San Francisco Zoo. His belief is that children must be free to run wild and to explore.

Ron helped us figure out how to work with a playground safety inspector. We were building custom-made, artisanal play elements. Every step of the way we made sure we conformed with the safety regulations. He set up a studio for us in his studio where he acted as our training wheels, empowering local people to do it for themselves.

It was this holy trinity. First, we had community residents. Second, we had the city of Richmond, which is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They gave us the green light to do this radical thing: to try and build a park with the community by hand. And, third, we had Ron from Scientific Arts. However, the residents were the most powerful force. All we did was create a system where someone could think up an idea and then just do it. Residents started getting into it, saying things like: “Well, we should put a bench there.” So then we would just go to Ron’s shop and build a bench and bring it back. Residents started gaining a lot of confidence by thinking, doing.

Play element construction / Pogo Park
Play element construction / Pogo Park

The numbers who have been employed with Pogo Park over the past decade is around 110-120 community residents. We’ve had probably another 250 who come and work for two weeks. But we primarily pour our money into our core staff. We have 10 people on the community resident team now that work between 15 hours a week and full-time. And they’re paid between $16 and $22 an hour. Those working full-time have full health, dental, and vision benefits. All of these people have never had insurance before. Pogo Park has definitely helped transform the lives of the key folks on our team. And we now have $1.5 million in contracts to design and build more parks in Richmond, too.

Park construction / Pogo Park
Park construction / Pogo Park

About 25 percent of our team does cleaning and maintenance. It’s a lot of work, because you’re cleaning not only the park, but also the streets around the park. When people come into our block, they can just feel it, because the streets are all clean, and there’s all these trees planted. I mean we clean up. Last year, we had 15,000 kids sign in at our sites. And these kids play hard, so things get broken. You have to replace the wooden planks and other things. When things break things, we take them to a work shop where we have a team. Our maintenance team can also build things.

About 50 percent are employed in running the park. We have a park host who comes in somebody who comes into the office every day. They put out all the play stuff and open up the bathrooms. They’re the ones scheduling all the programs Monday through Saturday. The other 25 percent does outreach and design for The Yellow Brick Road, plants trees, plant trees, and individual and group skills training. They train community members on how to use email, resolve conflicts, speak in public, etc.

How do you generate deep community buy in and involvement where others have failed?

We just show up every day and keep showing up. Most folks come into a community for a year or two and then leave. And then things go back to what they were. So the community doesn’t trust new initiatives, because they too will leave. It’s taken us nine years of work in this neighborhood, showing up Monday through Friday and not leaving, to gain that trust.

Some 77,500 neighborhood kids use Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Parks annually. What do these places try to do about works and what doesn’t in terms of play? And, specifically, what’s needed to create a safe, welcoming playground in a neighborhood that has a lot of crime?

If you go into any of these neighborhoods, the first thing is you have got to staff the park. What makes it safe is there’s someone who’s there watching out to make sure the park is clean, safe, and welcoming. Second, parks must be “bespoke,” custom made for the particular neighborhood, so they can then be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. The park has got to have soul. Most of these new plastic playgrounds that are plopped in from a catalogue just don’t have soul.

Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park
Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park

The design of the playground has to be generated from the inside out. The community has to be involved and figure out how it’s going to weave into the neighborhood. Children’s play is very complicated. It’s the mother’s breast milk of healthy development. Parks departments typically put in static play equipment that’s only good for physical play. You go up a ladder and slide down the slide and then go on the swing. But there’s all kinds of play: cognitive play, linguistic play, and imaginative, creative play. We have to create playgrounds that meet all the play needs of kids, not just physical needs. That’s why we say Pogo Park is an enriched play environment.

How have the new parks helped resolve community conflict and build inter-community trust? And what do you think still needs to happen?

Parks provide a community space for every human being on the planet. We’re social beings and gravitate toward public spaces where we can be with other people. Just claiming and holding this space, it becomes a sacred watering hole for the community. That has helped build the trust of the community, because it’s a place where people can actually connect in a real way with other residents and families.

You can’t just put the bones of the park down. You can’t just come into a neighborhood like the Iron Triangle and just plop something down and leave. You have bones but you also have to spirit. The spirit is programming, which makes the park come to life.

Now you’re rethinking another form of community space, streets. A project now in the works is the Yellow Brick Road, a “safe, green and clean” route for walking and biking that connects neighborhood schools, parks, transportation, shopping. Pogo Park organized another preview of a full scale 3-D prototype for the community to try out. What is your approach for designing, building, and maintaining this Yellow Brick Road?

Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park

We used the same 3-D modeling language we used for the parks, but translated it into the streets. We had to slow down traffic on the corners of the park, as we had some 15,000 people sign into the park last year, including thousands of kids. We worked with some of the top transportation engineers to design a new roundabout. We figured out what the dimensions needed to be and then mocked up a 3-D roundabout model. In the middle of the roundabout there is a hand-carved, eight-foot-tall totem pole the Pogo Park community team carved. Over two days, we let the neighborhood, police, and fire fighters actually drive through it.

We’ve spoken to others who have done 3-D models out of the street, but they never opened theirs to actual traffic. Neighbors could see what is going to be built rather than see it on a piece of paper. They could then add their thoughts right away. The community team, who are people the neighborhood knows, facilitated. Many neighbors, police, and fire fighters came up and thanked us so much for this. The 3-D models really got the community and city involved in a new way. We received a grant from the California department of transportation, and the Yellow Brick Road opened in January.

Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road totem pole and roundabout / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org

Pokémon Go Adds a New Layer to Public Spaces

Pershing Square Park as depicted in Pokémon Go
Pershing Square Park as depicted in Pokémon Go

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “nature-based recreation” has decreased 25 percent in the last 40 years. The average American now spends only one half of a day per week outdoors. Furthermore, kids now spend an average of only 30 minutes or less outdoors each day, half as much as 20 years ago. Is Pokémon Go — the explosively popular game app released worldwide this month — a way to get adults and kids off their sofas and into parks and other public spaces?

After a couple of days happily playing the game, my answer is a qualified yes. The qualification: it is possible to play a circumscribed version of the game while sitting at your desk or sofa. But the game is really designed to get you out into streets, parks, and plazas. It got me out into two public places — the town square in downtown Rockville, Maryland, and Pershing Square Park in Washington, D.C. — where I had different yet intriguing experiences.

Pokémon Go, which may be downloaded on iOS and Android devices, is a free, location-based augmented reality game in which players capture adorable-looking creatures called Pokémon. The game is played not from a comfy sofa, but out in the real world.

The app provides a map of the player’s real-world surroundings. Players move outside in order to find Pokémon and capture them using Poké-balls. The map provides a handy way to locate Poké-stops, which are found in such public spaces as public art installations, historical markers, and monuments and contain additional Poké-balls and other items. Poké-gyms, where players unleash their Pokémon to fight, are also located near prominent local businesses and other attractions.

I spent my first afternoon playing the game at Rockville Town Square, a 12-acre suburban public plaza that opened in 2007, part of a larger master plan to create a “daytime, evening and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.” Not only is it home to shops and restaurants, the square also includes a number of Poké-stops. The large crowd who congregated there on a Sunday afternoon included many Pokémon Go players, smartphones in hand, searching for virtual goodies hidden in the colorful public art.

Rockville Town Square via Better Cities & Towns / Dan Cunningham
Rockville Town Square via Better Cities & Towns / Dan Cunningham

The game turned into a communal experience as we chatted with strangers along the wide sidewalks. We all certainly benefited from Rockville’s cohesive pedestrian policies and were able to crisscross the square and surrounding streets safely with little interference from traffic. While it may be facile to urge landscape architects to create Pokémon-friendly landscapes, they should continue to design high-quality and lasting public spaces that accommodate ever-evolving recreation preferences and pedestrian safety.

A couple of days later, I felt the urge to play the game at D.C.’s Pershing Square Park, a multi-level park designed by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners that opened in 1981. It features a monument to General John J. Pershing as well as a bronze sculpture of an eagle by Lorenzo Ghiglieri — both, unsurprisingly, are Poké-stops. I spent half an hour in the park on a Thursday afternoon and quickly gathered items from the statues (this is done on the app by spinning a photo of the public art or feature).

Pokémon in Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.
Pokémon in Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.

After capturing these Pokémon, I found myself with nothing to do. The park was seemingly devoid of Pokémon, no matter where I stood, so I gave up and sat down to enjoy the calm retreat from the noisy traffic streaming on all sides. Tree branches shook in the breeze, and a parade of Falun Dafa supporters marched by. One woman paused in front of the Pershing monument, not to admire its historical significance, but to retrieve items for the game. Once she finished, she quickly walked away.

Later, a family of tourists arrived with cameras. They stood in front of the monument and photographed it and each other as they spoke in their native language. Clearly they were savoring a moment to be remembered later — a traditional experience of a public space that still serves a time-honored purpose.

My experiences with Pokémon Go, and observations of other players, show that the game may not fit the traditional definition of outdoor recreation, but it certainly creates enthusiasm for exploring your environment and engaging in physical exercise.

And perhaps this new enthusiasm for augmented reality games can be tapped to generate more creative designs of public spaces that integrate real and game worlds. Similar games are sure to come in the future.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 1 – 15)

Capture
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Conservation: Geniuses of Place Nature.com, 7/6/16
“Ethan Carr traces the arc of influence in landscape creation and preservation from ‘Capability’ Brown to Frederick Law Olmsted and the US National Park Service.”

Playful Variation on Ring Forms Performance Space at Ragdale in Lake ForestChicago Tribune, 7/8/16
“There’s something about a ring, the kind that gathers people in a circle. From Stonehenge to the layered-stone ‘council rings’ of landscape architect Jens Jensen, circular open-air structures have long liberated us from the straight lines of everyday life and created places for shared experience.”

Imagine if the 2 Freeway Ended in a Brilliantly Colored, Eco-Smart ParkThe Los Angeles Times, 7/11/16
“There are two ways you can look at the long spur of the 2 Freeway as it runs south from the 5 Freeway and descends into Silver Lake and Echo Park.”

20th Anniversary of the Birmingham Master Plan: City Planners Created an Industry Standard Planetizen, 7/13/16
“It has been 20 years since the city of Birmingham, Michigan approved the Birmingham 2016 Master Plan. Robert J. Gibbs, one of the planners on a team that included Andrés Duany, describes the decisions and process that contributed to the plan.”

Montreal Trades Expressway for “Urban Boulevard” Next City, 7/11/16
“Montreal has begun tearing down its part of a mid-century expressway to make way for a greener, more transit- and pedestrian-friendly boulevard, reports the Montreal Gazette.”

Central Park, Bucolic but Aging, Is in a Quest for $300 Million The New York Times, 7/13/16
“Belvedere Castle in Central Park looks indestructible, a fortress of stone presiding over the Great Lawn. But the 144-year-old-building leaks like a sieve.”

Highways Can Help Pollinators Return to Health

Compos
Compost-spreading tactics to encourage native plants that both control erosion and attract pollinators / Caltrans

In the face of rapidly-declining honeybee populations, farms across the country are under threat. In California, officials are now pioneering new methods to boost the health of the honeybees and butterflies, according to a recent Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. To reiterate the importance of these efforts, Congressman Jeff Denham, who is also an almond farmer, said at the briefing: “making sure we have healthy pollinators is critical to a state like California.”

There to discuss these pioneering methods was Keith Robinson, ASLA, principal of the landscape architecture program at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The purview of Robinson and the 240 landscape architects he leads is roadsides. Their primary job is to control erosion. But Robinson and his team have seized on that mandate to boost the health of pollinators along California’s 250,000 acres of highway roadside.

Robinson said it all starts with the soil. “We are prioritizing the improvement of soil quality on every single project. We want to make sure that soil sustains native plants and creates favorable conditions that encourage pollinator plants to not only to grow but thrive.”

Robinson’s team began this effort by performing studies on the optimal amount of compost that can be included in the soil. Compost “gets things moving along, and then the natural process takes over.” The right amount of compost allows native species to out-compete non-natives, foregoing the need for many herbicides that might negatively impact pollinators. Robinson’s team realized they could use Caltrans’ often-idle snow blowers to spread compost.

Another innovative step taken by Robinson’s team was the development of native grass sod, or pre-packaged grass carpet. “With native grass, the thinking was you can’t cut the roots and expect the plant to grow. But we’ve proved that it works.” Native grasses not only help erosion control, they encourage pollinators. “If you compare this solution to what we used to do, which was put straw down on top of compacted soil and hope for the best, you can see we’re moving down a path towards natural solutions,” Robinson said.

In addition to these steps, Caltrans ramped up planting pollinator-friendly plant species along highways. TransPLANT, an online tool, helps landscape architects choose sustainable, pollinator-friendly plants for their own projects.

Whether these effort can benefit pollinators fast enough is unknown. Robinson noted no studies have been performed on pollinator habitat health in state highway rights-of-way. And a recent study done by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation found that monarch butterfly populations in California have declined 74 percent in the past two decades.

Monarch butterfly /
Monarch butterfly / Public Domain Pictures.net

Another speaker, Eric Silva, American Honey Producers Association, expressed resignation that reversing the trend on bee populations was a losing battle. “We’re losing half the bees over the course of the year.” The environmental culprits are relatively well-known: pesticides and chemicals, habitat loss, and pests.

Robinson offered hope for the future. His team has developed an online roadside management toolbox that helps other transportation departments learn from Caltrans’ methods. The site has tens of thousands of visitors in the U.S., but has also gotten healthy traffic from countries such as India and Canada.

And regarding the future of roadside planting, Robinson envisions hyper-local roadside ecosystems that include native as well as non-native, well-adapted species. “The pollinator and native plant advocates have voiced their appreciation for our efforts,” Robinson added. “I don’t think the public is as aware of what we are doing yet.”

Landscapes & Gardens: The Works of Hargreaves Associates

Landscape & Gardens / ORO Editions
Landscape & Gardens / ORO Editions

“Gardens, parks, landscapes – these diverse scales and intensities of cultured nature all play important roles in our lives. This small collection is a provocative visual reminder of the enduring design potential of landscape space as public space,” writes Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor of architecture at Syracuse University, in the introduction to Hargreaves AssociatesLandscapes & Gardens, a small but rich landscape architecture monograph on the work of Hargreaves Associates.

Hargreaves Associates, which won the 2016 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture, has worked in the U.S. and abroad for decades. Their principals — George Hargreaves, FASLA, Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, and Gavin McMillan, International ASLA — have put together a compelling case for well-designed public landscapes wherever they may fit, like the recently-constructed Crescent Park in New Orleans or the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, both of which emerged from degraded brownfields.

Crescent Park, New Orleans /
Crescent Park, New Orleans / Johanna Liebe
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London /
Queen Elizabeth Park, London / George Hargreaves

As Czerniak contends, “Design matters. The design premises the projects employ offer glimpses into many of the larger themes that have consistently produced the firm’s successful work; a firm with an international reputation for its advanced design, technical expertise, public engagement, and the ability to get projects built in the context of complex politics and tough economics.”

The book is a mostly-photographic argument for increasing public investment in landscapes, parks, and gardens in the era of the public-private partnership in which parks are expected to raise lots of money to cover their own operating expenses and maintenance. But Hargreaves himself also writes eloquently about the subject:

“A successful park has loyal followers—people who identify a park with their culture, their region, their city, and their daily lives. This identification may be due to a particular activity in the park, but more often it is due to the gestalt of the overall park experience—said another way, the look and feel of the park. Landscapes can inspire through their visual qualities, tactile qualities, and contrasting or unifying qualities. They can inspire through their sustainability or their habitat creation, and they can inspire by providing human interaction with plants and wildlife. Through time it is the landscape that is remembered and privileged much more than income-producing programming. If we can produce landscapes for public space that embody these inspirational qualities, it will not matter when the programmed activities evolve, disappear (such as the 2012 Olympic games), or increase. History has shown us that, if it is done richly and robustly, a landscape can last for hundreds of years.”

Haihe riverfront park, China /
Haihe riverfront park, China / Zhuomin Peng

The book is organized by landscape design features, with brief chapters on striations, walls, islands, ribbons, along with underlying, core elements of landscape architecture, such as native plants, rain, and background / foreground.

Landscapes & Gardens clearly demonstrates that Hargreaves Associates can create memorable and immersive experiences in their “quiet, green spaces.” For example, anyone walking through Crissy Field in San Francisco is likely to remember the sense of tranquility that remarkable place engenders.

Crissy Field, San Francisco /
Crissy Field, San Francisco / George Waters

For Hargreaves, the challenge has always been how to balance “richness and robustness” in his firms’ public spaces, and within them, the quieter gardens. He says public spaces must both be designed to hold up to crowds but also offer moments for introspection, for enjoying the plants:

“Embedded within the public’s desire for green parks is a desire for gardens. Public gardens cannot be fragile in their design or placement. Like the landscapes they inhabit, public gardens must be robust. They will not receive personalized maintenance, nor can they be subject to the overrunning pedestrian flows of large events or major gatherings. In addition to the selection of hardy plants and protection by slight grade separations or low barriers, the design of these gardens should be bold and somewhat simple, while retaining the very qualities that we enjoy so much—constant and changing colors, differing plant structures, and textures that change with the seasons or that carry the garden through winter. Gardens can inspire, provide refreshment, incite joy, or simply provide a provocative landscape context; as John Dixon Hunt wrote in regard to the landscape, ‘The garden is the highest aspiration of our culture.'”

Stanford University campus, California /
Stanford University campus, California / Kyle Jeffers

The book, however, doesn’t go into any details on how the firm has consistently overcome political, financial, and ecological obstacles to achieve those well-designed public spaces. A few brief case studies or interviews with clients could have given a glimpse into how Hargreaves has successfully navigated institutional and financial challenges. Still, Landscapes & Gardens is a thoughtful effort from one of the few truly global landscape architecture firms.

Detroit Aims for Food Sovereignty

Plum street market garden / Jared Green
Plum street market garden / Jared Green

There are 165 acres of urban gardens and farms under cultivation in Detroit, Michigan. In a tour, Ken Weikal, ASLA, co-founder of the non-profit GrowTown and the firm Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, explained that everyone from Capuchin Monks to non-profit cooperatives, university labs to self-sufficient farmers, corporations to small businesses are involved in using Detroit’s vacant lands to produce food. The goals of these efforts are to increase food production “for Detroiters and by Detroiters,” generate new sources of income, and build community. The grand, long-term vision: “food sovereignty” for this resurgent rust-belt city.

A few farms we toured downtown were examples of corporate social responsibility efforts — spaces for company employees to volunteer. For example, an empty lot next to the MGM Grand casino and hotel in downtown Detroit was transformed into Plum Street Market Garden, where everyone volunteering the day we went was wearing an MGM employee t-shirt (see image above). The 2-acre garden produces 20 types of fruits and vegetables. MGM has invested some $600,000 in the project so far, and partnered with Keep Growing Detroit, a local non-profit, to hold some 60 community classes there a year.

Another example is Lafayette Greens, a nearly half-acre garden set in the empty lot where once stood the historic Lafayette building. The garden was financed and administered by Compuware Corporation, which has its headquarters a block away, but is now run by the Greening of Detroit, a non-profit. Designed by Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, a partner at Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, the market garden won an ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award. Weikal said the garden helped start the conversation downtown among everyone from policy-makers to school kids and tourists about the opportunities with urban gardening.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Heirloom apple trees line one edge of the garden. “They have ornamental, productive, and screening qualities.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Within the garden, raised beds, with smart benches at the end, grow a range of herbs and vegetables. “The beds are programmed like a museum exhibition but for flavor and color. They are vegetal exhibitions.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Sheds made of reclaimed wood house gardening tools and supplies.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Detroit’s bottom-up food movement was the focus of a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Ashley Atkinson, who runs Keep Growing Detroit, explained that urban farming and gardening is not a new thing in Detroit. In the 1890s, Republican Mayor Pinzen Stuart Pingree, who was elected to four terms, encouraged the poor and hungry to grow food. “He was the laughing stock of the country, but hunger was reduced dramatically.” Urban farming was seen as “low value, low education work,” but decades later, during World War I and World War II, nearly “every major city practiced urban farming.”

The mission of Keep Growing Detroit is food sovereignty in Detroit. “We want the majority of food vegetables in Detroit to be grown by Detroiters.” Her goal is to transform some 40 square miles of vacant land in the city into productive assets. Keep Growing doesn’t differentiate between “family gardens, school or market gardens.”

In 2003, Keep Growing Detroit started a garden resource program to grow seeds and transplants. They had to build this whole system from the ground-up, because “no one knew where to get these.” They now grow 250,000 organic transplants a year that are given away to the community. “We distribute them equitably” through local educational workshops and training sessions. In every district of the city, local farmers lead these training sessions. There are also tool sheds where hand tools and shovels can be borrowed for free, and compost centers where some 200 tons of compost worth $1.5 million is also distributed at no charge. And “we use shared work days and community events to build community infrastructure. Plus, we eat a lot together.”

Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit

Her group then formed Grown in Detroit, a collaborative network of some 80 gardeners and farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants. According to Atkinson, “some $100,000 is made and 100 percent of that money goes to the growers.” There is also a network of 1,400 community gardeners who help bring healthy food to the neighborhoods. They are part of an effort to establish healthy eating behavior among very young children. “If we can introduce healthy food recipes and cooking at a young age, we can impact them their whole lives.”

Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow
Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow

In 2013, the Detroit city government finally changed regulations so urban farming is now legal. While Atkinson considers that a win, she has a much broader vision: 25 percent of the 40 square miles of vacant land, which is some 5,000 acres, under cultivation. With that much farming, “we can produce 70 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruit consumed in Detroit and raise incomes.”

Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green
Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green

Devita Davidson, who heads communications for FoodLab Detroit, made the moral argument for local food production. “If you look closely at the supermarket, it’s a facade. The industrial food system is the site of injustice; the food system is failing so many people.” While she sees Detroit as the “comeback city,” she still sees major issues: 70 percent of adults are obese as are 40 percent of kids. “Detroit is dying from diet-related diseases.” She wants some of those locally-grown fruits and vegetables to be transformed into value-added products like ketchups, salsas, jams, and sauces. Her group’s innovative effort — Detroit Kitchen Connect, which was been lauded by Oprah Winfrey — enables local entrepreneurs to use restaurant, church, and other facility kitchens during off-hours to develop their products. Such a smart variation on the sharing economy, with food justice and social equity at its heart.

Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org
Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org

And Pashon Murray, a co-founder of Detroit Dirt, sees access to good-quality compost as central to the entire food sovereignty effort. She said Americans are incredibly wasteful, disposing of $218 billion in uneaten food, which is then dumped into landfills. “Some 52 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year, while 10 million tons is just left in the fields.” Much of that food waste can instead be collected and turned into compost, revitalizing soils in the process. Plus, “waste recovery equals revenue and jobs.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club

She has partnered with GM and Chrysler, collecting their food waste from factory cafeterias weekly and turning it into compost that is then distributed to local gardeners and farmers. To do this work, she hires ex-cons, “people we associate with dirt, the forgotten and left-behind.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub

Her dream is to raise enough funds for an “in-vessel composter digester” that will help her scale up compost production. She hopes to realize this in 2017. “Compost is the root of the soil, and soil is the foundation.”

It’s Time to Get Political

Earth Day political rally, National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Earth Day
Earth Day political rally, National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Earth Day

Social justice. Environmental stewardship. Enduring aesthetic beauty. An expanded role for landscape architects. These were the predominant themes in the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

These goals are admirable and worthy of the profession’s best efforts. But what many of the speakers at the summit neglected to discuss – as did the authors of the original declaration 50 years ago, upon which LAF was established – is that landscape architects must increase their access to power if their hope of a society more reflective of their core values is to be realized. The act of envisioning alternative futures – something landscape architects excel at – is a political act. It’s time we build upon our design acumen by participating directly in the legislative landscape.

So when the LAF asks what we need to prioritize over the next 50 years, my answer is the continued development of design intelligence through research and practice is a necessary but insufficient means of achieving the profession’s lofty ambitions. We also need a strategy for placing more landscape architects into the elected, appointed, and bureaucratic offices where the big decisions about how to plan, design, and manage the land are made. This is how we construct a positive feedback loop between private and academic practice, which can bring invention and creativity, and government, which offers a tremendous scale of impact.

Building this electoral infrastructure won’t be easy, but it should become a core component of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s and the LAF’s post-summit work. These organizations can create a mechanism for identifying and supporting potential candidates for public office from within the profession.

Though the profession is not in the same financial position as, say, trial lawyers, the good news is many of the most impactful elected positions are not prohibitively expensive to pursue. There are 7,382 state legislative offices, most of which are part-time and would allow landscape architects to remain in their private practice or academic positions. The same is true of the nearly 1,500 city council positions that are spread across the nation’s largest 250 cities. Surely our profession can muster a handful of worthy and willing candidates for at least a few of the nearly 9,000 positions available to our members.

In addition to putting some of our established and emerging voices forward as candidates for elected office, the ASLA and LAF should partner with academic departments of landscape architecture to build a pipeline for placing our new graduates in the state and federal agencies responsible for regulating and financing the bulk of our professional work: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Bureau of Land Management, among others.

Fortunately, much of this work has already been done for us. The Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program, a two-year leadership development program aimed at recruiting and grooming the next generation of public servants, is readily available to anyone who has recently earned a graduate degree. The ASLA and LAF are already planning to host a series of webinars aimed at guiding landscape architecture graduate students through the PMF application process. They should now look for ways to provide incentives for students who are interested in pursuing this path, including travel scholarships to and from the PMF interview sites.

ASLA should also create professional and student award categories that recognize excellence in policy-related work. And our academic departments should better prepare our students for this option by broadening the scope of design education to include coursework in policy analysis and, where appropriate, dual-degree offerings in landscape architecture and public policy.

Our colleagues in architecture and urban planning blazed this path decades ago, and their dominance in professional staff ranks of the HUD, DOT, and EPA reflect the success of their strategy. HUD’s award criteria for its Choice Neighborhoods grant program is nearly identical to that of the LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) rating system developed by architects and planners in the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Their influence on this vital program is not the result of boisterous or pleading rhetoric. It is because the Choice Neighborhoods program, and many others like it, was designed by the CNU’s own architects and planners — people like Shelley Poticha, Polly Trottenberg, and Shaun Donovan. Ceding this professional space to CNU planners and architects is akin to sitting at home on Election Day and complaining about the results.

As a junior staffer in the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Obama’s first term, I worked alongside many of these professionals. I remain convinced that for landscape architects to achieve a level of success commensurate with the scale of their stated ambitions, they must wade directly into the muck and mire of electoral politics. CNU became the conduits for channeling the creativity and intelligence of planning and architectural practice into the rule-making and regulatory power of the federal government. It’s time that ASLA and LAF do the same.

This guest post is by Billy Fleming, Student ASLA, doctor of city and regional planning candidate, University of Pennsylvania.

James Corner’s Icebergs Float into the National Building Museum

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

James Corner, ASLA, is passionate about climate change, but he is also passionate about fun. How can these diametrically-opposed interests be combined? Icebergs, the newest summer installation at National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. created by Corner’s firm Field Operations, aims to show us how.

Facts about these floating ice chunks, which break off from glaciers or ice shelfs, are found on giant iceberg teepees scattered throughout the installation, which visitors can walk around, through, and, in one instance, climb inside to the top. In real life, some 75 percent of icebergs’ mass is found beneath the water line. Corner’s installation clearly illustrates this, using a 20-foot-tall blue mesh ceiling to separate the vast undersea world from the surface, which can be only accessed when you climb up inside one iceberg and look out over the vista of the entire installation.

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

Very small icebergs — apparently their technical name is “growlers” — hang from the ceiling, and they can be appreciated both from below and when at the surface. Bean bag chairs shaped like floating ice chunks dot the floors.

Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

Coupled with this subtle education on icebergs is the immersive experience, the fun factor. At the preview, Corner said: “We wanted to design an interactive environment for people that will surprise, delight, and intrigue.” Corner also wanted it to have coolness, and be “literally cool,” hence the blue mesh walls.

Climbing inside a massive iceberg sheathed in dappled blue light, visitors can enjoy a sense of discovery as they climb up to the overlook point and then find the slide, which is very fast and seems primarily designed for kids.

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Aaron King

As visitors pop out the bottom of the slide, or walk around to end, they come to a shaved ice stand run by local Japanese restaurant Daikaya, which is perhaps the only literally cold aspect in this installation. The interiors of acrylic panel and wood icebergs were fairly balmy and may get even more so as they are packed with sweaty DC-ers and tourists this summer.

Corner made a point of describing the challenges of constructing Icebergs in just two weeks. To make this tight deadline, his team designed the iceberg forms to be modular, using the same-sized isosceles triangle piece, which enabled them to create icebergs 8, 16, 24, 32, and 56 feet tall. But “it was a complicated, herculean effort” accomplished by the National Building Museum’s team of carpenters.

Enjoy the icebergs and shaved ice until September 5. Admission is $10 for members and $16 for non-members, less for students. Corner has also designed a nice series of t-shirts and floaty pens.