Laurie Olin Wins Vincent Scully Prize

Laurie Olin, FASLA / Planetizen

At the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C., Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, became the first landscape architect to win this prestigious prize, joining Jane Jacobs, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Phyllis Lambert, and Andres Duany in NBM’s pantheon of those deemed most influential in shaping our built environment.

In a brief tour of some of his greatest work — including the landscapes of the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden and National Monument, as well as the Getty and Barnes museums — Olin expressed his joy in creating democratic spaces for people. He was interviewed by landscape architect James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations, a former student of his.

Some highlights from the wide-ranging lecture and conversation with Corner:

“I aim for creating a sense of calm resolve, a quiet seamlessness. The heavy lifting is hidden; I want to make it look effortless. This, however, can cause problems for me: people will see my projects and ask: ‘Why did it cost so much? What took so long?'”

National Monument grounds, Washington, D.C. / National Park Service

“Landscape architecture is not the sauce you pour over something; it’s part of the structure of an environment. When talking to people who don’t know what landscape architecture is, steer the conversation to another level. Landscape is a device for that.”

“Many things have changed since I started practicing in the 1970s. Many processes have changed for the better, thanks to new technologies. However, our faster world has caused impatience among clients. They say: ‘Why isn’t this done? We just emailed you yesterday.’ Digital technologies have made it harder to take time to slow down, stop, and think. Projects that take longer, that stall, are better because of the slowness. There is more time to consider. Landscape architecture is the slow food of design.”

“In the 1970s, most landscape architects were working in the suburbs; today, they are fully engaged in the city, because that’s where the people are. Then, just getting an urban mini-park built was seen as a major triumph; today, landscape architects are creating larger urban parks and even regional plans.”

On working with “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Norman Forster, and Richard Meier: “Architects are control freaks. They have to be. It’s hard to get things done, or even done well, and especially hard to get something done brilliantly. So they become maniacs. It’s important to learn their ways of thinking, but then you have to push back.”

ASLA 2017 Landmark Award. J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles; building designed by Richard Meier and OLIN / OLIN, Sahar Coston-Hardy

“Some people will say they can see a project and know it’s my work. But I don’t have a style. They are looking more at the handwriting than the style.”

On the controversial new 150-acre Apple campus in Silicon Valley, a collaboration with architect Norman Forster: “Steve Job’s idea was a forest — a big park — for his campus for tens of thousands of employees. He believed in nature and the health benefits of the natural world. His favorite park was Hyde Park in London. He was also a fan of Frederick Law Olmsted and studied his work. His vision was a park that was also an everyday workplace, where employees could go have walks and meetings under a tree. I agreed with this vision.”

Apple campus rendering / Norman Foster + Partners, OLIN, Arup

On the role of new parks in gentrification: “We need a green public realm for the health of our populations. We need places where citizens can come together. We need to spend money and build things well.” The way to address gentrification is to “eliminate the inequalities” in access to great parks. “We need to bring great parks to places like North Philadelphia.”

“Fears about community, other people, or terrorism negatively affect our public spaces. I believe in an open society and open environment. We can bring optimism and resistance — we can push back with good design.”

On President Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border with Mexico: “I disapprove of that on ecological, environmental grounds alone. The climate, ecosystems, and geology — and the people — run north south. You can’t divide people. I totally disagree.”

Olin’s new book Be Seated examines the role of seating in the public realm and includes many of his original drawings and watercolors.

In other awards news: Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, became the first landscape architect to win the MacArthur “genius” grant for her work “designing adaptive and resilient urban habitats and encouraging residents to be active stewards of the ecological systems underlying our built environment.” Also, urban designer and planner Damon Rich, one of the leaders behind the equitable revitalization of the Newark post-industrial waterfront and creation of the Newark Riverfront Park, also won.

Love and Fear in Los Angeles

Graphic by Margaret Gerhart

Sometimes things happen that make you question everything.

Two weeks ago, I walked along 103rd Street toward the corner of Grape in Watts with several community advocates and a selection committee from the California Natural Resources Agency. Viviana Franco and Maria De Leon from From Lot to Spot, the non-profit who applied for an urban greening grant, led us past Jordan High School and the Jordan Downs public housing development that is under redevelopment.

We described our proposal to the Agency, pointing out the portions of sidewalk to replace with shade trees and planting. Viviana had us meet in the beloved Heart of Watts community garden they installed a year ago, and showed us the parkway plantings and new concrete that brought patches of life and pride amid the crumbling curbs. As we walked, we talked about which trees would best shade people walking by and cool the apartment homes, which have no air conditioning. We noted the phone lines overhead, and the weeds and litter underfoot. We discussed native species and biodiversity. And maintenance.

A young man in a white suit and several teenage girls passed by on their way to school. Otherwise the sidewalk was empty.

Our group included John Jones from Council District 15, Haleemah Henderson of Watts Labor Community Action Committee, Amada Valle from the Heart of Watts garden, and Watts Gang Taskforce member Pinkus Crowther. We stopped at the corner of Grape at a large fenced lot where Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park will soon be. A few scraggly trees and one large one lined the fence opposite us on 102nd Street.

The light was red where Grape Street dead-ended into 103rd. A line of cars gathered. One driver leaned out his window to complain, laughing, to John about a new sign reading “No Right on Red.” John told him, “The community asked for it.”

Pinkus and I talked about the huge change trees could bring to the street.

“I just hope they don’t come cut their branches,” he said. “We plant trees and as soon as they start growing, they cut the branches so the police can see.” He turned to John, “Do you know if the police came to cut the trees yet?”

“Not yet, but they need to,” John said. He pointed across the lot at the big tree. “That big one. That’s where one of the toughest gangs in LA hangs out. The police need to cut it so they can see who is there.”

As we walked back towards the Heart of Watts, I said to Pinkus, “I know nothing of the situation here. But how do we balance immediate security with providing the very thing that can improve social cohesion, reduce criminal behavior, improve self-esteem, and build a community? Because we know trees and gardens can do that.”

“I don’t know,” he responded. I don’t know either.

This is where the tension lies. Which approach would you choose: fear, or love?

The night after I walked through Watts for the first time, my son’s best friend was killed there, on the same street I had walked on the day before. He and two friends went to a birthday party meant to bring youth from different communities together. They left the party without a ride, were attacked by a group of men, and beaten until he lay unconscious against an alley wall. One of the men pointed a gun at his friends. They ran for their lives. Two gunshots sounded. They returned to their friend, called 911, and tried to stop his bleeding. He died while they watched over him.

His friends are devastated. My eyes ache from crying. I cannot imagine the pain his family is going through. We all loved him. I will miss his kind smile and gentle nature and the days and weeks he spent with us. I will miss the unconditional love and support he gave my son during our own family struggles.

I’m grieving the only way I know how, by writing. As I grieve, I cannot help thinking about that tree as a symbol of the lives that are lost in places like Watts.

Trees provide the air we breathe. They cool our homes and our cities, protecting us from deadly heat waves. They absorb rainwater and protect us from floods. Planting more trees may even prevent senseless deaths like our dear one’s.

Drs. Frances Kuo and William Sullivan, ASLA compared Chicago public housing projects and found that trees and grass in the courtyard correlated with a greater sense of community, greater feeling of safety, less aggressive and violent behavior, and less impulsivity and irritability. A study with their colleague Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor found greater self-discipline (and fewer pregnancies) in teenage girls who lived in housing where trees and grass were. These studies illuminate the power of nature to improve mental health — to reduce the stresses and irritability that can lead to violence.

The systems so many (cities, school districts, housing developments, detention centers) have in place now — security cameras, security fencing, security guards, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), helicopter policing, reducing growth of trees and shrubs so people cannot hide behind them — these are based on fear. Fear of somebody doing something if we don’t control our environment.

This is the same fear felt by parents who keep their children inside and over-scheduled after the freer attitudes of the 60s and 70s when so many of us roamed our neighborhoods and creeks and parks by ourselves.

But what about design born of love? Love lets us imagine the best for all of our communities. Tree-lined, clean streets with safe sidewalks, public plazas and gardens for people to gather, public restrooms and parks where families feel safe. Shaded bus stops with benches and green schools with playgrounds open to the community at all hours. Jane Jacobs summed up a safe neighborhood with four words: eyes on the street.

I grew up in a neighborhood like this in the 70s. When our classmate was brutally murdered while walking home from school, our schools and parents taught us to walk in groups and know our neighbors, not to stay inside and hide. I lived in a neighborhood riddled with crack in the 80s, where gunshots went off regularly, few dared to walk after midnight, and our roommate was held at gunpoint at the corner deli. I’ve lived in a lot of situations in between, and I’ve known love and fear in all of them.

We need to overhaul the racist lending, housing, and justice systems that paved the way to where Watts and neighborhoods like it are today. Instead of the fear-based approach that led to barren projects surrounded by crumbling streets and punitive law enforcement, people deserve to be treated with compassion, humanity, and dignity. These communities need empathetic justice, medical and mental health care, education, job training, decent shelter, clean water, healthy food, and purpose.

People also need a respite from stress, a sense of community, self-esteem, beauty, and hope. These are things trees and gardens provide. Our children and teenagers, who are drowning in anxiety, need and deserve relief.

There are non-profits all over the city working for environmental justice. WORKS is a non-profit developer building affordable and sustainable residences with mental health services in LA’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The Trust for Public Land in LA has created 10 parks in the last eight years, including Watts Serenity Park, which opened in 2015. From Lot to Spot sees a more humane and beautiful Watts through planting street trees and community gardens. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee is leading the effort to build Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park.

We need to support these efforts, and others like them, by advocating for funds, programs, and services to help build healthier, safer communities without displacing people — to work towards social and environmental justice. Fear has had its chance, and it isn’t working. Let’s try more love.

This guest post is by Claire Latané, ASLA, LEED AP, SITES AP, fellow in innovation and leadership, Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF), and senior associate, Studio-MLA.

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

To get to Civita, one must take a long, winding footbridge from the neighboring town of Bagnoregio / Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Planned WWI Memorial Will Have a Ceremonial Groundbreaking on November 9Curbed, 10/2/17
“Originally, the plan was for a brand new WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C. to complete by November 2018, during the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, but due to a final design approval yet to be had, that won’t happen. Even so, there are still plans for a ceremonial groundbreaking on November 9.”

How Modern Architecture Is Being Influenced by Video Games The Week, 10/7/17
“Fletcher’s preference for designing in a game engine, as the software is called, was cultivated two years ago when he worked on ‘The Witness,’ an “open world” role-playing video game.”

In Italy, A Medieval Town Confronts a Double Threat — Erosion and Too Many Tourists NPR, 10/8/17
“Tourism is booming in Italy, which welcomed close to 50 million visitors over the summer. That has helped some places that have been struggling to survive. But for one destination, it might be too much of a good thing.”

What Harvey Did to Buffalo Bayou Park Is Only a Marker for What We Could Suffer Dallas Observer, 10/11/17
“Everything awful that happened to Houston was known beforehand. The same things are known here, too. It just hasn’t happened here. Yet.”

Landscape Architect Kate Orff and Urbanist Damon Rich Awarded 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Grants Arch Daily, 10/11/17
“The MacArthur Foundation has announced the 24 recipients of their 2017 MacArthur Fellowships Grants (sometimes referred to as ‘Genius’ Grants), and for the first time since 2011, the list includes individuals from architectural fields: urban planner and designer Damon Rich and landscape architect Kate Orff.”

Controversial Eisenhower Memorial Clears Final Hurdle

Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial / Eisenhower Memorial

After years of heated debate and seemingly-endless revisions, a simpler, stronger design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in southwest Washington, D.C. received approval from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). With a scheduled ground breaking on November 2, construction finally begins on the 4-acre memorial for President Eisenhower designed by architects at Frank Gehry Partners, landscape architects at AECOM, and a team of artists. Ending years of vocal criticism, the Eisenhower family have also signed off on the final design, too.

In the evolution of the memorial, which will be found immediately south of the National Air and Space Museum on Maryland Avenue, the highly-controversial woven-steel tapestries were scaled back — there is now just one 25,000-square-foot, 440-foot-long panel instead of three. Still, the decorative scrim, which will be made up of 600 15-by-3-feet panels, will be the size of five basketball courts back to back, writes Washington Business Journal.

Proposed imagery for the monumental tapestry also evolved from a photo-realistic image of Abilene, Kansas, President Eisenhower’s birthplace, to a figurative drawing of the Pointe du Hoc cliffs at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, the site of Eisenhower’s D-Day assault on Nazi Germany in World War II.

Normandy scene on Tapestry / Frank Gehry Partners

The original 13 gigantic limestone columns, which Susan Eisenhower, President Eisenhower’s granddaughter, famously said created a “Soviet-style authoritarian public space,” also appear to be reduced to 8, but each is still a sizeable 6 stories tall.

Eisenhower Memorial column / Frank Gehry Partners

The Commission on Fine Arts (CFA), which has requested many changes to the design over the years, also gave its approval last month. In meeting notes, CFA Secretary Thomas E. Luebke wrote the CFA had inspected a mock-up of the memorial’s tapestry and supported the new “abstract approach to rendering the cliffs and seascape of the Normandy coast.” The CFA “observed that the technique of hand drawing used to generate the tapestry image conveys much more emotional power than the previously proposed photography.”

However, the CFA will continue to review the progress of the tapestry created by artist and longtime Gehry collaborator Tomas Osinski and sculptures of Eisenhower at various stages of his life by Russian American sculptor Sergey Eylanbekov. Their goal is to “strengthen the relationship of the memorial’s elements with the new tapestry image.”

The CFA already required revisions to the location of the various statues and inscriptions to improve visitors’ experience as they walk through the memorial.

Eisenhower Memorial / Frank Gehry Partners

The final landscape design preserves views of the U.S. Capitol by creating grass pathways where Maryland Avenue is now, but also increases the tree coverage and green space in an effort to create an enclosed park-like feel. According to the CFA, the tree planting design could further evolve.

Eisenhower memorial / Frank Gehry Partners and AECOM
Eisenhower Memorial / Frank Gehry Partners and AECOM

And the three landscape architects and designers on the CFA — Liza Gilbert, ASLA, Mia Lehrer, FASLA, and Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA — no doubt helped preserve the four large trees lining the site the design team sought to remove.

According to the National Review, which called the memorial a “national embarrassment” and its design a “repellent monstrosity,” the design and review process to date has already cost a whopping $105 million. The memorial itself is expected to cost $150 million. Some $25 million is expected to be raised from private funds; the rest will come from tax payer dollars, with some $45 million already allocated for this year.

No doubt debate on the merits of the design will continue far after its completion.

The Reason to Expand Urban Forests: Our Health

Green for good project at St. Margaret Mary Elementary School / LouisvilleKY.com

A new research report from the Nature Conservancy argues that for just $8 per person, the U.S. could maintain and then significantly expand the tree canopy of American cities, an incredibly cost-effective investment in public health.

While high-profile urban tree planting campaigns like New York City’s get a lot of attention, most U.S. cities have experienced a decline in their urban forests, with a loss of about 4 million trees each year, or about “1.3 percent of the total tree stock.” The Nature Conservancy builds the case for recommitting to expanding our urban canopies for health reasons, instead of just letting them slowly diminish.

The many benefits of trees are well-documented: they clean and cool the air, combat the urban heat island effect, capture stormwater, mitigate the risk of floods, boost water quality, and, importantly, improve our mental and physical health and well-being.

According to the report, the U.S. Forest Service and University of California, Davis found that “for every $1 spent in Californian cities on tree planting and maintenance, there were $5.82 in benefits.” Another study found that for every $1, benefits ranged from $1.37 to $3.09.

In particular, urban forests can help catch harmful particulate matter in their leaves and reduce “ground-level ozone concentrations by directly absorbing ozone and decreasing ozone formation.” High levels of particulate matter and ozone can trigger asthma and cause other respiratory problems. Planting trees to deal with these issues in New York City alone could result in $60 million in health benefits annually.

Researchers are more closely examining how trees fight air pollution. In Louisville, Kentucky, Green for Good is now testing a “vegetative buffer” at the St. Margaret Mary Elementary School designed to filter the particulate air pollution coming off a nearby heavily-trafficked roadway. Initial results show that “under certain conditions, level of particulate matter were 60 percent lower behind the buffer than in the open side of the front yard. Among the health study participants, immune system function increased and inflammation levels decreased after planting.”

A Harvard Nurses Study found a 12 percent reduction in all-cause mortality for those who lived within 250 meters of a high level of greenness. And an exciting study now underway will look at 4 million Kaiser Permanente members in Northern California with the goal of determining if there is a relationship between healthcare use and the proximity and amount of nearby tree canopy.

Despite all the great research, the news still hasn’t reached the general public or even arborists. This is reflected in the fact that average U.S. municipal spending on urban forestry has fallen by more than 25 percent since 1980, to around $5.83 per urbanite today.

If the 27 largest American cities instead reinvested in their urban forests, “planting in the sites with the greatest health benefits (the top 20 percent of all potentially plantable sites in a city)” the cost would be around $200 million a year. Maintenance funds would also need to increase. The total gap between current realities and this needed reinvestment in our communities’ health is only $8 per person — so in a city of one million residents, $8 million.

Trees just get a tiny share of municipal budgets. But with these arguments backed by numbers, the hope is a relatively cheap investment in trees for public health — which would also result in so many gains in livability and property values — can win greater support.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 16 – 30)

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A.E. Bye’s stone-and-grass mounds in July 2017 / Audrey Wachs, The Architect’s Newspaper

Landscape Architect Explores Nature’s Role in Urban Development – 9/18/17, Rhode Island Public Radio
“If you’ve made your way to the outskirts of downtown Providence lately, you may have noticed thousands of sunflowers growing on empty plots of land by the riverfront. The pop-up garden is highlighted in this year’s “Design Week RI,” a series of events showcasing the state’s design sector.”

Garden Smart; A Glimpse at the Work Landscape Architect of Randle Siddeley – 9/19/17, South China Morning Post
“Unlike architects who build buildings, what I’m building is forever growing,” says Randle Siddeley, a prominent British landscape architect who has designed for commercial, residential and public spaces.”

Behind the U.S. Botanic Garden There’s … An Architect?9/20/17, The Washington Post
“Much of the same planning that goes into a building’s architecture applies to a garden’s architecture, especially one as large and detailed as the fragrant, pleasantly humid, lush-as-can-be United States Botanic Garden.”

Integrate—Don’t Decorate—the Outdoors, Says Landscape Architect – 9/25/17, Masion Global
“Enzo Enea, a landscape architect based in Switzerland, established Enea GmbH in 1993. Now, the firm has offices in Switzerland, Miami and New York.”

Future Uncertain for Rare Public Landscape by A.E. Bye in Brooklyn – 9/26/17, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Brooklyn’s first park may be getting a new entrance that some say would open up the green space to the neighborhood, but opponents contend the renovation would erase significant historic fabric, including a rare public commission by the late modern landscape architect Arthur Edwin (A.E.) Bye, Jr.”

10 Lessons From Chicago’s New Landscapes – 9/28/17, Urban Milwaukee
“The opening of Millennium Park in 2004 in downtown Chicago is widely credited with launching a renaissance of public spaces—not just in the Windy City but nationally and even globally.

DesignIntelligence 2017 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings

DesignIntelligence

DesignIntelligence recently announced its 2017 landscape architecture graduate and undergraduate program rankings. For the third year in a row, Louisiana State University (LSU) was deemed the best undergraduate landscape architecture program. And for the 13th consecutive year, Harvard University retained its dominance as the best graduate program, in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.

Detailed rankings are available in the 17th edition of America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools, which assesses program rankings and education trends in architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design.

Respondents from nearly 1,900 hiring professionals ranked schools, some 500 respondents more than last year.

DesignIntelligence asks us to only list the top five schools for each program. To see the top 15, purchase the report.

Bachelor of Landscape Architecture Degree Rankings:

1) Louisiana State University
2) Pennsylvania State University
3) Ohio State University
4) Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
5) Cornell University

Master of Landscape Architecture Degree Rankings:

1) Harvard University
2) University of Pennsylvania
3) Louisiana State University
4) Cornell University
5) Kansas State University

Satisfaction with landscape architecture graduates among employers increased slightly from last year. Some 75 percent said they “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the state of landscape architecture education in the U.S., up from 73 percent in 2016 and 71 percent in 2015, but down from 80 percent in 2013.

Employers still think landscape architecture students lack basic knowledge for many aspects of their job. A majority thought students lack an understanding of “the importance of projects, budgets, and schedules,” procurement processes, firm business models, and real estate or commercial law.

Some 32 percent of employers thought it took 6-12 months for new hires to become “fully productive and billable.” 23 percent think it takes longer and 42 percent less.

Practitioners were also asked about global concerns with the greatest impact on landscape architecture. They identified:

Climate change (70 percent)
Urbanization (61 percent)
Globalization (46 percent)
Mass immigration (43 percent)
Geopolitics (38 percent)
Population aging (37 percent)

An additional deans and chairs survey asked leaders of 47 landscape architecture academic programs about the issues they find significant. According to 88 percent of the professors surveyed, their biggest concern is climate change and sustainability, while another 84 percent said urbanization and 50 percent said globalization. Academics are even more concerned about climate change than practitioners.

Among the biggest changes to curricula in the last five years: some 60 percent thought it was “more emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and integrated practice,” while 57 percent saw an increased focus on community involvement. Just 39 percent saw an increased focus on sustainable and healthy design, down from 51 percent last year.

And for the sixth year, DesignIntelligence surveyed landscape architecture students to gauge their satisfaction with the programs covered. This year, more than 589 students were surveyed, up 36 percent from the last. On average, just 56 percent thought their program was “excellent.” Students were most pleased with their programs’ allocation of dedicated studio spaces, and least happy with their technology offerings. Just 43 percent of graduates plan on working in private practice when they graduate (down from 59 percent last year); 16 percent remain undecided. Students can expect to have some $37,000 in debt on average when they graduate.

Check out our archive of 2016-2009 rankings.

Green Infrastructure Through the Revival of Ancient Wisdom

Before. ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award or Excellence. “Green Sponge” for a Water-Resilient City, Qunli Stormwater Park in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award or Excellence. “Green Sponge” for a Water-Resilient City, Qunli Stormwater Park in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, China / Turenscape

Gray infrastructures made of steel and concrete, which we built to connect our physical world, are shallow or even fake constructs that are destroying the real and deep connections between human beings and nature and among various natural processes and flows. The alternative is green infrastructure, or ecological infrastructure, the construction of which can be inspired by the ancient wisdoms of peasantry.

For the past twenty years, I have tried to revive some of these peasantry wisdoms and combine them with modern sciences and technologies to solve some of the most annoying problems in today’s urban environment, particularly around water. The solutions are simple, inexpensive, and beautiful and have been applied on a massive and extensive scale in over two hundred cities in China and beyond.

Gray Infrastructure and Broken Connections

Some people may think that our world, through our built infrastructure, is more connected digitally and physically than ever before: we have Facebook and WeChat on the one hand, and ubiquitous highways and pipelines on the other. But actually the opposite is true. More than ever we are disconnected from the communities we belong to, and we have alienated ourselves from our neighbors and from those we love.

Physically, the landscapes that we inhabit are visibly interconnected: motorways connect urban and rural settlements; power lines that transport energy connect power stations to individual families; pipelines that drain waste water connect our toilets to sewage treatment plants; aqueducts that transport drinking water connect reservoirs to our kitchens; airlines that transport food connect the farm in the southern hemisphere to the refrigerators in the north; trucks that carry fertilizers and herbicides on the highways connect city factories in the east with the peasants who farm in the rice paddies in the mountainous west.

We have created a connected world, but these connections are false: the landscape matrix and its invisible processes are fragmented and disconnected. The movement and cycles of water, nutrients, food, energy, species, and people are broken. The interconnected relationship between air, water, soil, nutrient, species, and people is being interrupted, and in a harmful way, more than ever before.

Let me offer an example concerning water. Over 75 percent of the surface water in China is polluted; 50 percent of China’s more than 660 cities are facing floods and urban inundation; and over 60 percent of China’s cities do not have enough water for drinking and for other uses. The groundwater table in the North China Plain drops over one meter each year; and over 50 percent of the wetland habitats have been lost in the past fifty years.

All these water-cycle related issues that impact our cities and our landscapes are actually interconnected, but the conventional infrastructural solutions designed to solve these problems are fragmented, isolated, and single-minded: We build water treatment plants to remove the nutrients that could be used in fertilizers for farming; billions of dollars are spent yearly on the construction of concrete dikes, dams, and pipes to control floods and stormwaters, but these structures eventually produce fiercer droughts, declines in groundwater levels, and habitat loss; a thousand-mile-long aqueduct built to divert water from Southern to Northern China caused serious damage to the ecosystem in the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze River; ornamental gardens and landscapes as well as agricultural fields are over-fertilized and all those nutrients flush into the water system, polluting the rivers and the lakes. And again, the conventional solution is single-minded – build expensive water treatment plants that need huge amounts of energy (mainly from coal burning) to operate, which in turn create more air pollution.

An alternative solution might be the construction of green infrastructure, or ecological infrastructure, which creates a deep and true connection between man and nature and among various natural processes and flows.

The Ancient Wisdom of Peasantry

The connections between peasants and their farmlands illustrate the timeless interdependence of human culture and nature. One alternative to rebuilding the deep connections between human beings and nature and among various natural processes comes from the wisdom of peasantry, of field-making, irrigating, fertilizing, growing, and harvesting, which have transformed landscapes on a large scale and sustained humanity for thousands of years.

One category of peasantry wisdom is the making of fields through a cut-and-fill action. The peasant’s approach to cut and fill is one integrated action, meaning the earthworks created for farming happen on-site, with minimum costs for labor and minimum transportation of material to or from the site. It has, therefore, a minimum impact on the natural processes and patterns in the region. This tactic has been implemented by peasants in almost all parts of the world as a way to transform their otherwise unsuitable environments into productive and livable landscapes.

The second category of ancient peasantry wisdom lies in managing water and irrigating the fields. Modern methods of irrigation used in both farming and landscaping are represented by a system of pipes and pumps that is nearly invisible. It doesn’t relate to surrounding terrain and available water resources. The peasant’s approach to irrigation is deeply rooted in natural processes and patterns. Thousands of years of farming experience have made irrigation one of the most sophisticated techniques in agricultural societies. The use of gravity to irrigate the field requires precise knowledge, and the harmony between nature and subtle human intervention can turn such a serious science into an art form, an interactive medium of community building, and even a spiritual force.

The third category of peasantry wisdom is fertilizing. It is a magical component of traditional farming and a critical link, closing the circle by reusing the materials of human living. All wastes from humans and domestic animals as well as vegetative materials are recycled into fertilizers. Such a nutrient cycle is broken in our urbanized and industrialized settings. What peasants call fertilizers are today defined as “pollutants” in our lakes and rivers.

The fourth category of peasantry wisdom is growing and harvesting. Unlike planting and pruning in gardening to create a pleasant ornamental form, the peasant’s approach to planting is focused on productivity. Planting begins with the sowing of seeds, and the management process follows nature’s rhythm as a strategy of adaptation to the surrounding climate and conditions. Again, the self-sufficient nature of ancient agricultural economies requires each household to grow diverse crops, including grains, vegetables, fibers, medicines, fruits, timber, fuel, and even fertilizer proportionately to the seasonal needs of the family, and within the limits of nature and human capabilities. The meaning of harvest goes far beyond the production of foods and products. Harvests are productive in terms of their capacity to enrich the soil, purify the water, and make the land healthy. In other words, the peasant’s fields are net producers instead of net consumers of energy and resources.

This is not to say that one should give up the comfort of urbanization and go back to a peasant’s primitive life. These essential features of peasantry illuminate the underlying basis for rebuilding the connections between nature and human desires, balancing natural processes and cultural intervention, and help us to reclaim the harmonious relationships between human beings and nature.

Revival of the Ancient Wisdom to Create an Alternative Infrastructure

Imagine what our cities would look like if we did not drain the rainwater away through pipes and pumps, but instead used the ancient wisdom of peasantry in field-making to create a green sponge in the city that retains the rain water, creating diverse habitats and recharging the aquifer. In this way, the green spaces in the city become an ecological infrastructure that provides multiple ecosystem services that regulate the urban environment to be resilient to flood or drought, allowing clean water and food to be produced right in the middle of the city. Biodiversity would be enhanced dramatically; urban residents would have a green network for jogging, commuting, and relaxing; and real estate values would increase because of the beauty of, and access to, nature! That is what we have tried to do in many cities in the past twenty years: to transform the city into a sponge city.

Before. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park, China / Turenscape and Cao Yang
After. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park, China / Turenscape and Cao Yang

Imagine what our cities would look like if we abandon the high and rigid concrete flood walls and instead revive the ancient wisdom of peasantry and create vegetated terraces at the river banks that adapt to the up and down of the water flow. Ecofriendly solutions like ponds and low weirs are designed to slow down the flow of water and let nature take time to nourish itself, so that diverse habitats can be created that enrich vegetation and wild life, allowing nutrients to be absorbed by the biological processes! That is what we have done to transform the mother rivers in many Chinese cities.

Before. ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Guizhou Province, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park, Guizhou Province, China / Turenscape
Before. ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway / Kongjian Yu
After. ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. A Mother River Recovered: Qian’an Sanlihe Greenway / Kongjian Yu

Imagine what our cities would look like if the nutrient-rich (eutrophic) river and lake water could be cleansed through the landscape as a living system, in the way that peasants have recycled organic waste, instead of using expensive sewage plants to remove the nutrients. We could produce clean water and nourish the lush vegetation. Native biodiversity could be improved. We could turn recreational spaces into urban parks and, in this way, urban parks could become producers instead of consumers of energy and water. That is what we have done to transform the landscape into a living system that mediates polluted water.

Before. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park, China / Turenscape
After. ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park, China / Turenscape

Imagine what our cities would look like if the brown fields of industrial sites are recovered by the processes of nature, where the ancient wisdom of the pond-and-dyke system is adapted to create a terrain that collects rainwater (instead of draining it away through pipes) and initiates the evolution of a plant community, remediating the contaminated soil during this process. At the same time, the industrial structures are preserved as sites of cultural heritage in the city. A unique landscape is created, featuring dynamic native vegetation and a touchable memory of the past, which attract urban residents because of its beauty as well as the diverse wild life that it maintains in the middle of the city. This is what we have done in several industrial cities.

Imagine what our cities would look like if we turn some of the urban land back into productive landscapes instead of into expensive lawns or ornamental gardens, so that the long-distance transportation of food can be reduced. Let the rice, sunflowers, beans, and vegetables be grown in the city, let the sun and moon tell the time for sowing and harvesting, let the seasonal change be noticed by the urban residents, let the process of food growing be known to the young, and let the beauty of crops be appreciated! This will not only make our city more productive and sustainable, but nourish a new aesthetic and a new ethics of land and food. This is what we have done in some Chinese cites.

Before. Quzhou Luming Park, Zhejiang Province, China / Turenscape
After. Quzhou Luming Park, Zhejiang Province, China / Turenscape

By reviving the ancient wisdom of field making, irrigating, fertilizing, growing, and harvesting, and integrating this wisdom with the contemporary sciences and arts, we are able to build alternative infrastructures – nature-based green infrastructures replacing the conventional gray infrastructures – that are able to solve some of the problems in today’s urban environment, particularly around water, which are difficult or very expensive to solve through conventional means. Living with nature is inexpensive and easy, comfortable and beautiful, and an art of survival.

This guest post is by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape and Cheung Kong Scholar Chair Professor at Peking University, and founder and president of Turenscape. He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

This article was first published in Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Summer 2017, volume LXX, number 4).

PARK(ing) Day Shows the Value of Public Space

Transforming a parking spot to a public park for a day #ILASLA PARKing Day #aslapd17

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On Friday, September 15, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) participated in PARK(ing) Day, an annual, open-source event that asks landscape architects and other designers to re-imagine parking spaces as small, miniature parks, or parklets. PARK(ing) Day aims to educate people about the value of public space and what it can bring to a community.

ASLA professional and student members from across the country transformed simple parking spaces into places with nearly-endless possibilities. For example, the Illinois Chapter of ASLA created a hamster wheel to get people moving in the limited space (see image above).

The Auburn ASLA Student Chapter designed a space to hold a small concert for passersby.

#parkingday2017 #aslapd17 #ASLA #FBD #EDSO @auburnasla @fbd_auburn @auburn_edso @joshuaaubreyjackson

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The New York Chapter of ASLA hosted a dialogue with New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver about public space.

Hord Coplan Macht, a landscape architecture firm based in Baltimore, showed off some local pride.

#hordcoplanmacht #landscapearch #aslapd17 come visit our Front Yard!

A post shared by Om Khurjekar (@aum_koke) on

And others just wanted to relax with some friends on a Friday afternoon like these Kansas State University students.

How do you value your public space? #aslapd17

A post shared by Caroline Finck (@c.arolina.blues) on

We asked our members to share their parklets on social media with #ASLAPD17. More than 300 users posted nearly 850 times with the hashtag, reaching more than half-a-million people worldwide. To see all posts, visit our Tagboard.

Life after Harvey and Irma: How Will We Rebuild Our Cities?

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South, Queens, New York. Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi / © Albert Večerka

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma might have passed by, but their consequences haven’t. Vast areas of Texas and Florida were devastated, and we’re only starting to assess the damage they left in their paths. Not only are natural disasters becoming more frequent, but they are hitting us with greater force. If you turned on the news in the past two weeks to view the coverage, you’ve seen firsthand that our nation’s cities have not been built with an eye to for resilience in the face of extreme climate events; the scale of the damages and displaced are evidence of that.

Now that tragedy has hit Texas and Florida, we can either dwell on the past and play the blame-game, or we can look to the future and decide to rebuild the affected cities in a way that will minimize the damage when another natural disaster hits – because it will.

Infrastructure and foresight are central to rebuilding efforts. As communities rebuild from disasters such as Harvey and Irma, they have an opportunity to invest in and adapt their landscapes to meet the changing climate conditions. This includes transportation and land planning that integrates green infrastructure to provide critical services for communities, protect against flooding and excessive heat, and help to improve air and water quality.

Taking action now and rebuilding our nation’s cities the right way can reduce damage resulting from future natural disasters.

We know how to do this. An excellent example of resilient design is Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park. Built in Queens, New York, it addresses urban resilience and sustainability. The City of New York commissioned the designers, Thomas Balsley Associates and Weiss/Manfredi, to create a park with an infrastructure ready to withstand rising water levels during storm surges and 100-year flood conditions.

The park quickly proved why planning meant everything. Even before it was publicly open, Hurricane Sandy hit New York and the park in 2012. While the Big Apple suffered the consequences of Sandy, Hunter’s Point South drained as planned and completion of the project continued with little setback. Landscape architecture projects such as Hunter’s Point South demonstrate how innovative design can create sustainable and resilient urban environments.

The consequences of climate change are inevitable. We urge federal, state, and local policy makers to invest in thoughtful and climate-resilient solutions to systemic infrastructure issues. That’s why ASLA is convening a multidisciplinary blue ribbon panel of experts to create actionable recommendations. The 11 experts will meet on Thursday, September 21, through Friday, September 22, 2017, and publicly present their findings and policy recommendations in the form of a report in January 2018.

Our hope is that the findings and recommendations of this report will inspire our decision makers to take action as we rebuild our cities and prepare for intensifying natural disasters.

This post is by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, Executive Vice President and CEO, American Society of Landscape Architects