Let the Water Tell the Story: Leading with Landscape III Convenes in San Antonio

Brackenridge Park, San Antonio / SanAntonio.gov

San Antonio’s historic downtown is the main draw for a tourism industry with a $13 billion impact. The history is about as thick as it gets for a U.S. city, but the downtown’s commodification has taken a toll. For example, just up the steps from the Rainforest Café on the Riverwalk, the Alamo faces off with Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Madame Toussaud’s Waxworks. Follow the San Antonio river downstream for eight miles, though, and you encounter four modest, centuries-old missions in serene, almost rural settings. And if you follow the river three miles upstream, you find Brackenridge Park, a hard-working 343-acre city park packed with locals.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) held its third Leading with Landscape conference in San Antonio, and, unlike the first two iterations of the series in Toronto and Houston, the event focused on a single site — Brackenridge Park. Landscape architects and local leaders, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, focused on the park itself or presented examples relevant to the discussion of its past and future. More than 400 attendees were drawn to the Pearl Stable, a brick barn built in 1894 and converted to a theater.

Lynn Osborne Bobbit, executive director of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy, opened the conference by announcing the approval of a master plan for the park that was commissioned by the city and crafted by Rialto Studio. The first draft of the master plan faced stiff resistance around parking changes, the closing of interior roads, and fears that working-class people of color would lose access. This controversy was not discussed in detail during the conference, but was alluded to by City Council member Robert C. Treviño and others.

Brackenridge park planning process / Parks and Recreation San Antonio and City of San Antonio Transportation and Capital Improvements, Work5hop

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president and founder of TCLF, framed the conversation at the conference start. He said Brackenridge Park has not received the national attention it merits because it was not designed by a master. Frederick Law Olmsted did visit the site in 1857 before it became a park and wrote that the clear springs there that give rise to the San Antonio River “may be classed as the first water among the gems of the natural world.” After Olmsted’s visit, in the late nineteenth century, a private company pumped water uphill and out to the burgeoning city. When this system became obsolete, the owner, George Washington Brackenridge, donated the site, which accumulated uses piecemeal over time, like the zoo and Witte Museum. Informal uses, like Easter weekend camping, developed along the riverbanks as well.

The history goes much deeper, at least 11,000 years, as several speakers noted. Visitors have had the opportunity to observe archaeological digs unveiling ancient artifacts in the vicinity of the bike trails, zoo, Japanese Garden, natural history museum, playgrounds, cafes, pavilions, picnic tables, and parking lots.

Leading landscape architects had visited the park prior to the conference and carefully situated Brackenridge in a national context. Chris Reed, FASLA, founder of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, gave an overview of major projects around the country showing the resurgence of landscape design not just in the making of parks but in the shaping of cities. Gina Ford, ASLA, a principal and landscape architect in Sasaki’s Urban Studio, talked about how park edges matter, citing examples in New York and Houston to both define park edges and make them more porous. Brackenridge’s edge come in and out of focus, making its extent hard to understand.

Bob Harris, a partner at Lake|Flato Architects, spoke about plans for Confluence Park, where San Pedro Creek meets the San Antonio River near Mission Concepción. He noted the door-to-door outreach campaign that gained acceptance from an initially-skeptical neighboring community. A former industrial yard will be transformed into a park with a pavilion of massive concrete forms. In a similar vein, Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, managing partner of SWA’s Houston office, gave an account of how difficult it can be to reconcile the varied demands of neighboring and regional park users.

Confluence Park forms / Lake|Flato Architects

Suzanne B. Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, talked about the decades-long effort it took to piece together land, permits, funding, community buy-in, and political support to create a continuous trail system stretching from the “Mission Reach” in the south, through downtown, to the conference site in the “Museum Reach,” which, with an awkward dogleg at US 281, ends at Brackenridge Park. The authority has expanded its vision to include creeks and key streets like the Broadway Cultural Corridor. David Adjaye’s design for the Pace Foundation expresses this ambition beautifully along San Pedro Creek.

Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, shared her firm’s designs for a new entry sequence — a lush canyon of dripping vines — for the San Antonio Botanical Gardens adjacent to Brackenridge.

Doug Reed, FASLA, spoke about connection to community and a yearning for permanence, about emotion and deep time. Using maps and diagrams, he showed how Brackenridge is fragmented now, but has the potential to bring all these elements we yearn for together. He said Brackenridge does not fit neatly into any one park model and it may in fact be more like a national park than any city park.

The comparison to a national park echoed a point Birnbaum made at the start of the conference: Brackenridge Park should be part of a national heritage area that includes the missions and is connected by a narrative around water. The recent designation of the missions as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, he argues, missed an opportunity to raise the profile of the broader landscape and tell a story around the river.

San Antonio mission / PR Newswire

How, though, can Brackenridge Park be elevated as a national landmark without losing the authenticity that comes out of its “plop-and-drop” accumulation of uses? One recurring response from speakers was made very clearly by Vincent Michael, executive director of the San Antonio Conservation Society, who said the modern view of preservation is “process and community” more than restoring design integrity. The term “community,” as Baumgardner showed, is difficult to pin down. As for process, landscape architects often endure brutal criticism as they try to resolve different demands by layering uses.

A May 6 bond vote that would provide $21.5 million for Brackenridge Park will be a critical test of whether the newly-adopted master plan and heightened ambitions engendered by TCLF’s conference have been enough to move the process forward.

This guest post is by Raj Mankad, editor of Cite magazine at the Rice Design Alliance.

Are Therapeutic Gardens Safe?

Legacy Family Birth Center Garden fountain / Brian Bainnson

Among hospital administrators, there seems to be a growing concern that therapeutic gardens can harbor diseases and spread them to those who have compromised immune systems. There was a case of Legionnaire’s disease spread through a water fountain, and soils can also be a source of some illnesses, but the fears are essentially unfounded, argued a trio of landscape architects at the Environments for Aging conference in Las Vegas. Good design and maintenance can eliminate the risks.

Leah Diehl, director of therapeutic horticulture, the Greenhouse at Wilmot Gardens, college of medicine at the University of Florida, said landscape architects should use “evidence-based knowledge to counter fears.” The evidence points to the incredible health benefits of being in nature. As such, the proven health benefits of “seeing, hearing, touching water” found in a fountain — such as reduced stress, lower heart rates and blood pressures, and an increased sense of tranquility — outweigh the near-zero chance of catching something. In terms of soils, yes, there are toxic bacteria that naturally occur in the mix, but there’s also mycobacterium vaccae, which some scientists think can play a role in reducing the effects of depression and anxiety.

For landscape architect Brian Bainnson, ASLA, “proper design can disrupt the process of infection.” For an infection to occur, there needs to be a pathogen, a susceptible host, and a mode of transmission. He argued that the Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaire’s disease, is more often spread through HVAC systems, spas, and jacuzzis than fountains. He said a “lack of maintenance allows the pathogen to grow.” He also said “there is no documented evidence of an infection from a healthcare garden.”

For a healing garden at the Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, he designed a water feature with an integrated design team of physicians, therapists, hospital administrators, and maintenance workers to ensure there was no standing water when the fountain is off, and that patients can’t easily touch the water (see image at top). “Removing standing water is also good for vector control,” meaning it reduces places where mosquitoes can breed.

For another garden in the oncology ward of a hospital, Bainnson recommended administrators install Ultraviolet (UV) or flouridation systems to ensure the water is clean. It’s important in these instances to work with the maintenance staff to make sure those filters are tested and cleaned regularly.

For him, “the benefits of the fountains are too high, and they should outweigh any perceived risks.”

Diehl offered other examples: the Evanston Hospital in Illinois, which has a three-story fountain wall that ends in a pool, use sand filtration and chlorination and tests regularly to ensure the highest levels of water quality. And at the Glenbrook Hospital, also in Illinois, there is an entire water management team charged with infection control that tests the water in their fountains each month.

Glenbrook Hospital fountain / AIA

Jack Carman, FASLA, a landscape architect who focuses on senior care facilities, talked about the potential dangers of flora in therapeutic gardens, arguing that “not all plants are safe.” He said when using a plant in a healthcare setting, it’s important to know if “it’s toxic and highly injurious.”

It can get complicated because some plants may be only mildly toxic, or both medicinal or toxic depending on the interaction. For example, juniper has a medicinal use but its berries are toxic in large amounts. And some other plants are questionable, like daffodils, which are safe, but have toxic bulbs.

But there are some straight-out dangerous plants, like Foxglove, that shouldn’t be in therapeutic gardens. “Also, azaleas and rhododendrons don’t belong in a garden for Alzheimer’s patients.” Plants with extremely sharp edges, like hollies, or thorns, like rose bushes, obviously shouldn’t be found near where anyone is walking.

American-style Senior Living Comes to China

Cypress Gardens / China Senior Care

In China, traditional Confucian values dictate that children take care of their parents in their old age. It’s taboo to put your parents in a home. But from 1979 to 2015, Chinese parents could only have one child, which means there’s a whole generation of Chinese with four grandparents and two parents to take care of. To get around the taboo, China Senior Care, a company based in Shanghai and Hangzhou, launched a Western-style senior residential care facility. The idea seems to be if a facility doesn’t seem typically Chinese, perhaps the stigma associated with placing an elder in a home will be avoided.

At the Environments for Aging conference in Las Vegas, Jane Rohde, principal with Baltimore-based architecture firm JSR Associates and Jerry Smith, FASLA, design principal at SMITH | GreenHealth Consulting, walked us through the brand-new Cypress Gardens, in Fuyang, a suburb of Hangzhou. The project, which took eight years, is a private, 5-star senior care center, with just 64 beds, some for assisted living and some for memory care for patients with neuro-cognitive disorders. Each room rents for about $5,000 per month. There are community spaces, restaurants, a library, a theater for both relaxation and entertainment. In fact, it replicates a traditional American senior care facility model: the car-dependent, self-contained suburban facility.

China, like the West is rapidly aging. According to the Brookings Institution, there will be nearly 250 million people 65 and older in China by 2030. Today, Chinese seniors are essentially cared for during “extended hospital stays,” said Rohde. “It’s OK if it’s called VIP care. But it’s really out of the 1950s,” with rows of beds packed into one room. It will be interesting to see how the culture and current senior care models evolves as the country ages.

Cypress Gardens sits on a steep suburban site in the side of a mountain, which meant major grading challenges for Smith, and his design-build partner, Yumin Li, ASLA, with POD Design, Shanghai. To deal with the slopes, Smith built in layers of stone retaining walls in the form of step terraces.

Retaining walls and terraces / China Senior Care

A winding drive leads visitors up to the upper level entry. Smith said working with multiple Chinese contractors (two for the building and interior and one for the landscape) was a new learning experience — “just getting the drive and entrance to meet each other was a challenge.”

Many of the rooms have their own terraces. And surrounding the base of the 6-story building are a series of “outdoor rooms,” both public and private, where residents can be alone or socialize, or engage in physical activities like Tai Chi.

Cypress Gardens terraces and outdoor spaces / China Senior Care

Smith said the owners “didn’t want the character of the space to be Chinese. They wanted all new, all Western.” A water fountain on the south wall cascades into a pool, in an effort to achieve the “Bellagio Wow!,” the owners said they wanted.

Still, Smith delivered a tasteful landscape that manages to be packed with a mix of Chinese and Western landscape elements, from pagodas, to a bosque of gingko trees, and a labyrinth.

An outdoor room / China Senior Care

The pagodas mark the transition from the larger public spaces to the quiet memory care spaces, and can be “closed off for privacy and security as needed.”

Chinese children paying to have their parents stay at Cypress Gardens will see a “wonderful place with very high-end amenities,” Smith said. The facility opens in next month and it’s already mostly booked.

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

Biscayne Green /  Modern Cities

Fuji Kindergarten | An Exploration of Space and Learning for Children Landscape Architect’s Network, 3/2/17
“Design is about hosting human life and activity. There are, however, projects that go beyond that, to actually shape human life and activity. Fuji Kindergarten is one of those projects. Given its educational purpose, it would be right to say that it shapes character and personality, as well.”

New Plans Revealed for Detroit’s East Riverfront Architect’s Newspaper, 3/2/17
“The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy (DRFC), the City of Detorit Planning & Development Department, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) announced the latest plans to expand Detroit’s riverfront land for public use.”

Five Competing Designs Revealed for Victims of Communism MemorialThe Ottawa Sun, 3/2/17
“The Department of Canadian Heritage Thursday revealed five competing designs for a relocated and drastically downsized Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the Garden of the Provinces and Territories on Wellington Street.”

Landscape Architecture Icons to Know Now: Cornelia Oberlander and Harriet Pattiso Curbed, 3/8/17
“Cornelia Oberlander and Harriet Pattison knew of each other long before they met: In a field with few female practitioners at the time, they were often told of “another” woman working in landscape architecture.”

In Chicago and Philadelphia, The Difference a Park Makes – The New York Times, 3/12/17
“From Philadelphia to Seattle, other American cities are also banking on parks and public spaces to drive social and economic progress.”

Miami’s Giant Pop Up Recreates Downtown Street Modern Cities, 3/13/17
“Temporary installation is the first attempt to showcase possible improvements that could transform Biscayne Boulevard in Downtown Miami into street rivaling the Embarcadero in San Francisco.”

Amur Leopards, Siberian Tigers Get New Sanctuary In China, Bigger Than YellowstoneInternational Business Times, 3/13/17
“”China has reportedly approved plans to create a national park in the northeast areas of Jilin and Heilongjiang that will span 5,600 square miles— about 60 percent bigger than Yellowstone National Park.”

Our Interaction with Nature Doesn’t End When We Age

Senior care facility, Phoenix, AZ / Dr. Lori Reynolds

When an older person loses their cognitive and motor functions, how do they maintain a connection to nature? This is the central question for Dr. Lori Reynolds, a clinical professor of occupational therapy, and landscape architect Brad Smith, ASLA. For a senior care facility in Phoenix, Arizona, with some 80 beds for assisted living and 30 for memory care, which involves helping those with advanced neuro-cognitive disorders, Reynolds and Smith together came up with new approaches to redo their courtyard in order to better maintain that connection. At the Environments for Aging conference in Las Vegas, they presented two options — one geared towards the assisted living residents and one for the memory care residents.

Reynolds made the case for investing in gardens in senior care facilities. “For 100 percent of older adults, nature is important.” As Jack Carman, FASLA, a landscape architect who works on senior care facilities, said: “our interaction with nature doesn’t end when we age.”

Reynolds found studies that show “access to nature increases resident satisfaction. And residents are most satisfied when there is ample seating, a variety of nature elements, walking paths, and adequate shade.”

Furthermore, the presence of a garden in a senior care facility influences those family members making the decision about where to put their parent or grandparent. “Nearly 50 percent report the availability of a garden influenced facility choice.”

Other surveys show that “outdoor activity space is among the top desired features,” and “the second most-important feature after the location.” So, if gardens make residents and families happy, and happy residents recommend a facility to others, than functional garden spaces seem like a no-brainer.

After explaining the many physiological benefits of nature for all people, she focused in on the benefits for those in memory care, explaining how exposure to nature can “reduce agitation and aggression among Alzheimer’s patients.” For these patients, “plants can become like people.” They are a presence that can take on “significant meaning,” Reynolds explained. Plants can also represent a legacy: A plant that has been in someone’s life for many years “is a past-life experience, and adds coherence.” The plant of a loved-one who has passed away can help sustain memory of that person.

Facilities can design ways to maintain this elemental connection — for both those who still have an active relationship with nature and those with a mostly passive relationship. For those able, an active relationship, which involves going out and spending time in the garden, is preferable. For those who cannot, a view out a window of a garden or even indoor potted plants are important. For some, “engagement outdoors may be too difficult — it may be too windy or too far from the bathroom.” But still, this doesn’t mean that accessible, aesthetically-pleasing gardens should be jettisoned from budgets.

The current state of garden design for senior care facilities is more focused on the internal than the external, “despite the acknowledged value of these outdoor spaces,” Reynolds said. If there are outdoor spaces, they are too often ornamental, not functional. More need to be accessible and provide healthy doses of nature.

To that end, Brad Smith worked with Reynolds and a senior care facility in Phoenix, Arizona, which they prefer to leave anonymous, to create garden designs that enable both more active and passive interactions with nature in an interior courtyard (see image at top). There are opportunities for transforming the space, which has a required access lane for a fire truck, into a more dynamic, therapeutic place that enables “inside out and outside in” connections.

The option geared more towards assisted living patients, offers a meandering path, an expanded covered patio and outdoor seating areas with rocking chairs, and a water feature surrounded by trees and plants. There are also bird and butterfly feeders patients can bring nectar and seeds to. For this option, Smith envisions caregivers bringing out wheelchair-bound residents so they can enjoy classes in the morning or early evening when it’s cooler.

For the variation designed for memory care residents, there are “vignettes designed to spark connections to the past.” Smith proposes making the space “as familiar as a backyard,” by designing a space for clothes lines and a gardening shed. “Women of a certain generation spent much of their time drying clothes; just letting memory care patients hang stuff up may make them feel better.” There’s already an old 1940s-era car parked in the courtyard, which he imagines male residents enjoy seeing and exploring. A loop walking path, inspired by the memory garden in Portland, Oregon, would enable chaperoned pacing. And the garden is also designed to provide pleasing views from inside the memory care residences of soothing water features.

With memory care, Reynolds said facility owners should use light furniture that’s easy for caregivers to move around. Also, pergolas should be avoided, as they throw shadows that will “wig out” residents. In Phoenix, the gardens will be really hot much of the day, with lots of glare, so use would be limited to mornings or evenings.

Smith and Reynolds estimated the senior care residence had spent about $57,000 on what they have now, which doesn’t do much. For $155,000 they could have the assisted living landscape, or for $96,000, the one for memory care. For just a little bit more, “they could have a killer garden space that boost marketing, creates positive first impressions and a sense of perceived value” while also providing many of the health benefits of nature, Smith explained. Bringing in volunteers — local Habitat for Humanity or other groups — to help plant could further reduce the costs. But they also noted a need for a maintenance budget up front.

The Case for Humane Prisons

Construction of the amphitheater, Iowa Correctional Institution for Women / Iowa State University News Service

Long before anyone defined the field of environmental psychology, prisons were testing grounds for theories about how the design of the built environment could exert a physical and moral influence on people. In 19th-century England, the “Panopticon” prison design proposed a radial organization of brightly-lit and highly-visible cells around a dark central watch tower, to instill in prisoners the moral pressure and paranoia of constant social surveillance. In 21st-century Norway, prison buildings are separated by rolling hills and forests to promote frequent interaction with nature, and guards’ break rooms are cramped and uncomfortable to encourage them to spend their social time with inmates.

The distance between those approaches speaks to the struggle of societies to define the role of prisons as places for punishment or reform, for repentance or rehabilitation. It’s in this arena — fraught with moral undertones and with concerns about safety, accountability, justice, and injustice — that landscape architect Julie Stevens, ASLA, practices.

Stevens, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, has overseen three design-build projects at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, a medium-security prison in the small city of Mitchellville. Her approach to prison design is the same as for any community design: build relationships and recognize the humanity of the whole community, while honoring the voices of the most vulnerable — in this case the inmates, or “the women,” as Stevens referred to them most often during a lecture last week at North Carolina State University’s College of Design.

Stevens became involved at the women’s prison in 2011, when administrators were overseeing a $68 million expansion project that included no funding for design of the landscape. “The department of corrections wanted us to help them figure out where to put a few trees and shrubs,” Stevens said. “The prison was a lot of concrete, a lot of lawn, and essentially what happened is that a crew of about 12 women go out and start on one end of the prison with a cheap lawn mower and start mowing. And they push line after line after line, and when they get done, they start all over again.”

“We looked at this, and we thought, ‘We can do a lot better. We can make spaces more productive, more therapeutic.’”

The first design-build project was a limestone amphitheater flanked by two outdoor classrooms, a lawn mound, an aspen grove, and a constructed native prairie (see image above). Iowa State landscape architecture students designed the one-acre space with help from the women, and a team of students and inmates built the whole thing in one summer, using tons of donated gravel and limestone.

ASLA 2015 Student Community Service Award of Excellence, Landscapes of Justice. Students and inmates plant a tree, Iowa Correctional Institution for Women / Julie Stevens

During that first summer of construction, Stevens and her students noticed that prison staff tended to congregate at their cars after work, decompressing in the hot parking lot before driving home to their families. The next design-build project became a decompression deck for prison staff. When that was done, Stevens and her team created a healing garden to serve prisoners in the mental health unit. Now she’s building support for a design to serve the women and their children.

The projects are driven by the relationships Stevens has cultivated with prison administration, staff, and inmates. The designs accommodate administrators’ requests by promoting calm, creating functional spaces, and addressing security concerns — through open sight lines, for example, and the use of epoxy to keep limestone pieces fixed in place and unusable as weapons. The designs serve the women as daily spaces to gather and, during design and construction, as opportunities to build employable skills. But the effects are also more subtle.

“Some of these women have come from some pretty unthinkable situations, years of abuse. But when we’re in the garden and we’re working together, we have a single vision, we’re working toward a common goal, and we all get to be equal,” Stevens said. “Gardens are inclusive.”

The designs at the prison are informed by research on environmental preference and attention restoration theories, and Stevens has assembled a team of researchers to help capture the impact of the projects. They’re tracking protective factors, which are thought to reduce recidivism and which include demonstrations of teamwork and problem-solving. They’re also using surveys to keep track of the gardens’ effects on prisoners. Results so far suggest that being in the landscape makes the women feel calmer, more optimistic, and in greater control of their lives.

ASLA 2015 Student Community Service Award of Excellence, Landscapes of Justice. Prisoners experience the landscape, Iowa Correctional Institution for Women / Julie Stevens

For Stevens, who is a co-founder of the ASLA’s Environmental Justice professional practice network (PPN), those metrics are important. They start to illustrate the impact of the landscape in people’s lives, and they help make the case for corrections departments everywhere to invest in humane design.

But the root of her work at the prison, and in environmental justice generally, is deeper. It’s a belief — common to the history of thought on prison design — that the measure of a society lies in the treatment of its most vulnerable populations, that good design is important and should not be reserved for those with a voice. Stevens identified the solution at the end of her lecture: design and action driven by love.

“We have a lot of work to do. It’s really good work, and it’s really important work,” Stevens said. “We have to love and care for other people.”

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16 – 28)

Chicago’s Martin Luther King Drive transformed by driverless cars / The Driverless City Project and Illinois Institute of Technology, via The Chicago Tribune

Driverless Cars Could Change Urban LandscapeThe Chicago Tribune, 2/17/17
“If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen.”

Wastelands Reborn CityLab, 2/17/17
“As my colleague Laura Bliss explores in her story about New York’s Freshkills Park, some of the best parts of certain metropolitan areas are literally built on dumps. There’s a whole genre of these parks, from César Chávez Park in Berkeley to the Tiffit Nature Reserve in Buffalo.”

Ten Finalist Teams Named for U.K. National Holocaust Memorial Competition The Architect’s Newspaper, 2/23/17
“The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation has announced its shortlist of ten teams to design the new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent the Palace of Westminster and in the heart of London.”

Planners Across America: McDermid Manages New Oklahoma Land Rush Planetizen, 2/27/17
“Planning Department Director Aubrey McDermid discusses planning’s role in the Oklahoma City’s ongoing reinvestment and revitalization.”

Pershing Park and the World War I Memorial: Moving Beyond an Accumulation of Pieces The Huffington Post, 2/27/17
“One of the most important parks on the most significant stretch of America’s Main Street – Pennsylvania Avenue between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, known as the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site – remains under threat.”

Toward a Unified Theory of Landscape Architecture

Island Press
Landscape Architecture Theory / Island Press

Our ecological practices tend to lag behind our ecological understanding. We know, for instance, the unmitigated release of greenhouse gasses destabilizes the climate, yet we’re slow to act on this knowledge. This can be frustrating. But often it benefits a cause to stop and reflect on what is known. This can help bring our knowledge and actions into alignment. Landscape Architecture Theory: An Ecological Approach by Texas A&M University emeritus professor Michael Murphy, ASLA, does exactly this, codifying what landscape architecture knows, so that thoughts and actions may one day be on the same page.

So what does landscape architecture know? More than you might realize. Landscape Architecture Theory is intended as a sort of textbook, so Murphy does his best to cover a lot of ground in relatively few pages. The reader is first introduced to terms like landscape, architecture, and design, as well as the importance of the cultural vantage point from which we view landscape. (Landscape is a tract of land, yes, but also a commodity). The rest of the book is divided into two parts covering substantive and procedural theory. The former “describes the knowledge used to frame and inform design interventions.” The latter gets at how that knowledge is applied.

The result of this approach is an instructional, highly-narrative book that strikes on the fundamentals while stepping lightly through complex subjects. Within a matter of pages, the reader is acquainted with the human propensity for resource extraction inefficiency, the prospect-refuge theory, and a systems approach to landscape. And, surprisingly, the progression feels quite natural.

This distillation of a huge number of important ideas into a quick and coherent format is the blueprint for a go-to book. Landscape Architecture Theory is eminently useful and widely applicable. It’s difficult to recall another book that serves as a primer on the behavioral dimensions of space, traffic circulation, and hydrologic dynamics, among other subjects. There is not a single landscape architecture student who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book cover to cover, and general readers will appreciate its simple and direct treatment of even widely understood subjects.

via_appia
The author refers to the Via Appia, in Rome, as an example of the human-dominated landscape. / Wikimedia Commons

Murphy outlines the knowledge that can help us reach goals. Here, he gets abstract, proposing landscape architecture’s purpose is “to change, with each new design, our concepts about how to learn from and reform the ordinary landscapes that shape and inspire our daily lives.” Experimental and innovative design, underpinned by theory, is what moves landscape architecture forward. But while designs may take on extravagant forms, the purpose of landscape architecture remains humble: to benefit “the streets, parks, neighborhoods, schools, shops, offices, and factories where people work and play each day of their lives.”

“We are still in the early stages of forming a coherent theory of landscape architecture,” Murphy cautions. Despite the impressive body of knowledge contained between its two covers, design excellence won’t be achieved by all those designers who read Landscape Architecture Theory. As Murphy acknowledges, one of the main challenges in achieving design excellence is the body of knowledge informing landscape architecture keeps growing while each design success pushes the bar for excellence higher. Viewed in a certain way, that’s a very exciting prospect.

Good Design Is Sustainable

Perk Park, Cleveland by Thomas Balsley Associates / Land Studio
Perk Park, Cleveland by Thomas Balsley Associates / Land Studio

Good landscape design is intrinsically sustainable. While a certain level of ecological sustainability may be achieved by adhering to a checklist of environmental best practices, long-term sustainability is achieved by engaging broader cultural, economic, and socio-economic goals. It’s now widely recognized that city dwellers tend to live a less wasteful and more energy-efficient lifestyle than those who live in the suburbs or rural areas. So if well-designed urban public spaces are able to counteract the discomforts of high density, then more people will live happily, and sustainably, in cities. This was the crux of the argument made by landscape architects Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Ken Smith, FASLA, and Thomas Balsley, FASLA, in a recent panel discussion organized by the New York chapter of ASLA.

During the course of their long careers, these renowned designers have experienced two major shifts in the field of landscape architecture. One is the greater inclusion of ecological principles in design. The other is a shift in our cultural attitudes towards cities — from viewing them as unfavorable to celebrating them.

Each presented projects that engage sustainability on multiple levels and time scales.

Perk Park, a one-acre park in downtown Cleveland, was a vestige of 1970s-era landscape architecture, when parks were designed as places to protect oneself from the stress of the surrounding city. “What happened, in fact, is that the space became inaccessible, it didn’t have sight lines. There were places to hide. Eventually, people wouldn’t even go in there, so it really held back the growth and vitality of the neighborhood,” said Thomas Balsley. His firm, SWA/Balsley, re-designed the park so it celebrated and engaged with the surrounding environment, blurring the edges between the park and the city (see image above).

One popular element of Perk Park is its “urban porch,” a linear pergola covering seating that lines the sidewalk. “You can sit at the porch and be in touch with the streetscape but also the park and be in dialogue with both.” The park became so vibrant that local corporations and retail began to occupy the surrounding buildings, just to be near the park.

By preserving existing trees and including new permeable green space in the densest and most impervious area of a major city, basic elements of urban ecological sustainability were achieved. Moreover, by providing what Balsley calls “a stage for daily urban life to happen,” the park achieves a long-term and nuanced form of sustainability.

“Really great design makes a difference, and it makes more of a difference than OK design,” said Schwartz. “What we see affects us psychologically and emotionally. How a space looks can determine whether or not it will be used, and therefore maintained.” The public will become active stewards of a well-designed space, but if a space is not considered valuable, “all the technologies and the well-meaning environmental practices we bring to it will disappear over time.”

For Schwartz, a successful public space is both resilient and heavily used. She achieves these goals by weaving a narrative specific to each site, as well as creating landscapes that challenge and intrigue the public. Grand Canal Square by Martha Schwartz Partners in Dublin, Ireland, uses towering, off-kilter red poles, criss-crossing paths, and a paved red “carpet.” Built before much of the surrounding development, the square’s acclaim has ushered in economic resilience. The Dublin offices of Google and Twitter are now the square’s neighbors, and the property values surrounding the square stayed steady during a time of economic downturn.

Grand Canal Square Dublin by Martha Schwartz Partners / Martha Schwartz Partners
Grand Canal Square Dublin by Martha Schwartz Partners / Martha Schwartz Partners

As part of the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan, which Ken Smith Workshop has been working on for a decade, Smith and his studio designed and built a prototype mussel habitat. Working with ecologists and marine engineers, Smith selected a concrete-textured substrate and designed a gradient of rocks to encourage the growth of mussel colonies.

In terms of providing a measurable ecological boost in the context of the East River, this 65-foot-long prototype of a constructed mussel habitat is likely only a drop in the bucket. However, being able to see the tides move up and down a slope as it fosters aquatic life is a unique sight in New York City, where hard vertical edges dominate the waterfront. Reminders that these natural processes occur amid the industry and infrastructure of the city can bring a sense of wonder to visitors, and perhaps encourage stewardship.

East River Waterfront mussel habitat pilot project / Ken Smith Workshop
East River Waterfront mussel habitat pilot project / Ken Smith Workshop

The common belief is that good design means sacrificing sustainability or vice versa. But these landscape architects challenged this assumption. Schwartz said: “To have something work sustainably in terms of its ecological processes, it doesn’t have to look a certain way. Sustainability doesn’t have an aesthetic. If you use your creativity, there’s no reason why there is any separation between design and sustainability.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press
Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

Some 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, some 4 billion people. That number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. As more of the world goes urban, we have a fundamental task ahead: to make the world’s cities ecologically-rich and emotionally satisfying. As Beatley puts it, we must use the “power of nature” to improve the experience of city life. As has been laid out elsewhere, increased amounts of urban nature and improved access to it can boost happiness, creativity, and cognitive abilities, reduce stress and crime, make communities wealthier and more social and resilient. Study after study demonstrate these benefits.

But Beatley unearths fascinating examples like the Mappiness Project in the UK. More than 60,000 Brits out and about in their daily lives were pinged by an iPhone app that asked them at random times to indicate how happy they were. Responses were then geo-coded to locations, with their relevant natural features. The study found “people are happiest when they are in nature. This is one of the main conclusions of the project.”

He also details the many ways cities can create room for nature. While creating connections to waterfronts and planting more trees are no-brainers, he calls for “an integrated, multi-scalar approach,” in which biophilic experiences are embedded at “interconnected scales and levels.” Biophilic encounters reinforce each other, and as they accumulate, the benefits increase. On a daily basis, people experience “doses” of urban nature in different ways — on their porch, walking down the street, on a park bench — and together these make up their overall “urban nature diet.” He recommends spending time a park or greenspace at least once a week, but the science is still out on what that ideal amount of time is. Beatley argues for direct contact in outdoor settings, like sitting under a tree, over indirect exposure to nature, like found in indoor environments or natural history museums.

Beatley has long held up a few cities as model biophilic cities, but he goes into more detail about what they offer. He explores Singapore’s sky-bridges that course through forests and vertical gardens set in skyscrapers, and Wellington’s comprehensive efforts to bring back bird song by restoring habitat and its pioneering launch of the world’s first marine bioblitz.

Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog
Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog

But he also includes lesser-known success stories, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 3,000 vacant parcels are being re-imagined as gardens and urban farms, and San Francisco’s Please Touch community garden, designed so the blind and visually impaired so can also have a multi-sensory nature experience.

Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner
Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner

We then get to the nitty-gritty of how to make biophilic cities happen — through smart policies, thoughtful urban planning regulations, and breakthrough designs. There are 80 pages of interesting examples, with many works of landscape architecture, including Paley Park in New York City, designed by landscape architect Robert L. Zion, which he rightfully identifies as a unique multi-sensory experience that demonstrates the “power of water.” With its 20-foot-tall fountain, this tiny park, at just one-tenth of an acre, demonstrates the incredible potential of small, left-over urban spaces.

Paley Park / Pinterest
Paley Park / Pinterest

So many other projects are worth reading about — like the Aqua in Chicago, which is a bird-friendly skyscraper; the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which plants fruit trees in poor communities; Milkweeds for Monarchs in St. Louis, which incentivized citizens to plant hundreds of gardens for threatened Monarch butterflies; the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore, which is taking steps to achieve a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020; the Vertical Forest, a residential tower in Milan, Italy, which extends trees upwards through 27 stories; and the 54-acre Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, which repairs a damaged ecosystem while storing stormwater and creating wildlife habitat.

Beatley concludes with a few thoughts that resonated with me about how the whole biophilic cities movement needs to evolve. As we green cities, we must aim to achieve a “just biophilia” in which everyone benefits. Given study after study demonstrate that access to nature can improve and even lengthen lives, it’s deeply unfair that not every community gets to have the healing benefits of nature. Plus, we must also must figure out how to reach an increasingly technology-fixated public, who are often interacting with nature through their phone’s camera. He promotes Sue Thomas’ book Technobiophilia, which argues we can better foster connections to nature through cyber-parks — real parks that leverage the Internet.