The Ferns of Dumbarton Oaks in 3D

Sophia McCrocklin’s Ferns of Dumbarton Oaks / Sophia McCrocklin

“Why ferns? Because some are 350 million years old.” The world’s oldest living plants show the incredible resilience of nature’s best designs. Looking closely at ferns under a microscope, Washington, D.C.-based artist Sophia McCrocklin found that their “spores are in fact little springs,” perfectly engineered for propagation over the megaannums.

McCrocklin grew up in Kentucky. Appalled by coal companies strip-mining the landscape, she decided to fight them and became an environmental attorney. At the same time, McCrocklin explored her interest in fiber art and began showing in galleries and Ky Guild of Artists.

Her interest in ferns started about six years ago by chance. “I have always loved trees and had never thought about ferns. But I was on a hike one day in Rock Creek Park and had to go around a tree that had fallen. As I was scrambling around the log, I came face to face with a fern. It was winter and the fern was the only thing green out, so it caught my attention.”

She had been out in the forest looking for something to make in 3D, so when she got home she cut off a branch of a Boston fern in her house. She ended up replicating a stalk that was 3-4 inches long and showed people, but they were “not impressed.” She realized she needed to make a fern much larger so that people would notice it as much as they do a tree.

Ebony Spleenwort Fern / Sophia McCrockin

Someone told her that there were many types of ferns at Dumbarton Oaks Park (DOP) in Washington, D.C. Landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who designed the space as the naturalistic companion to the formal gardens above at Dumbarton Oaks, had planted 8 types, but there were also 7 others native to the area.

After speaking with DOP Conservancy staff, including landscape designer Ann Aldrich, the park’s resident plant expert, McCrocklin started to catalogue and investigate the ferns. She then decided to undertake a series of large-scale art works, organizing them into categories: Farrand’s ferns, other native ferns, and inspired ferns, which include some of her early explorations. She later became the park’s first artist-in-residence.

McCrocklin essentially photocopies the ferns and blows them up to a very large scale. She also looks at ferns under a microscope at the Smithsonian’s US Herbarium to ensure the details of the plant scale up accurately.

In Annapolis, McCrocklin purchased junk Dacron boat sails, a durable polyster material, for around $1 a pound. She cuts ferns out of the Dacron, sews them, and inserts copper wire to support the stalks and leaflets. Color is added through acrylic paint or pencils. Spores are made of anything from mustard seeds to beads of glass. The fuzzy parts of the ferns’ stems crafted from shredded canvas fiber or sometimes cotton. “I try whatever works.”

Grape Frond fern spores / Sophia McCrocklin
Interrupted Fern spores / Sophia McCrocklin
Roots of a Cinnamon Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

Each is then mounted on a heavy canvas board, or otherwise it would collapse. The canvas is painted with a cherry blossom pattern, reflecting how they can be seen in spring in Dumbarton Oaks Park.

Each fern takes about 6 months and is either 4.5 feet square or approximately 2.5 feet wide by nearly 7 feet tall.

Some are more challenging than others to engineer at large sizes. Sword ferns like the Boston or Christmas fern, which have one stalk with attached leaves, are relatively straightforward.

Christmas Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

Tassel ferns, on the other hand, are like small trees, with many branches, each with leaves. “They are very time consuming. If I had tackled tassel ferns in the beginning, I’m not sure I would have done this project,” she said, only half-joking.

Tassel Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

After spending many years with them, McCrocklin has grown to love ferns. By enlarging them and making them such tactile works, she wants to convey how important they are.

“We easily look up at big trees because they are magnificent and awe-inspiring. We rarely look down at ferns, but the loss of these plants and the forest’s understory is the canary in the coal mine.”

Sensitive Fern / Sophia McCrocklin

She said some areas of Maryland fence out deer. The result is a “dense and lush” understory. But in D.C., where deer roam, “there is just bare ground, which is bizarre.”

“I want to make people aware that the understory is vital to the health of the forest. People need to pay more attention to the little things, as they signal the condition of our ecosystems. A forest may look healthy if it is filled with trees, but trees are really the last to go.”

McCrocklin’s exhibition, which was to be free and open to the public in early April, has been cancelled due to COVID-19 and will be rescheduled for next spring or fall. Explore her work at her website and on Instagram.

Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, Take Time to Reconnect with Nature

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Re-envisioning Pulaski Park. Stimson / Ngoc Doan

If you are in a place impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, spending 20 minutes experiencing nature in a park, street, or even your backyard can significantly reduce your stress levels. Just be sure to follow federal, state, and local guidelines and maintain social distancing of 6 feet. But even if you cannot or are unable to go outside, taking a break by opening a window and looking at a tree or plant can also help de-stress.

After years of research, Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA — a landscape architect, ecologist, and professor at the University of Michigan — can state with confidence that just 20 minutes of experiencing nature has major benefits. Her findings, which were widely covered in the media last year, were published in the Frontiers of Psychology.

The Coronavirus pandemic — and all the financial, social, and emotional havoc it has wrecked — has only increased stress worldwide. “People are stuck inside, freaked out, and the news doesn’t get any better,” Hunter told me.

She explained that there are a few good ways to stop “ruminating and concentrating on bad stuff.” One way is to exercise. Another is to experience nature, which offers a “great way to take you away from whatever is on your mind.”

She recommended walking or sitting or looking closely at a tree, plant, bug, or animal. “Get rid of your tech — your smart phone — and actively pay attention to something in nature. The experience of nature is what is key. The intentional focus gets you the stress reduction faster.”

Everyone’s experience of nature may be different. It can be experienced on a trail or street, in a park or plaza, within a backyard, on a patio with some plants, or out a window. “You can also close your eyes and listen to birds or insects.”

Parks are particularly important though, because it is also a way to see other people from a safe distance. These green spaces have few metal or plastic surfaces where viruses can lurk.

As the pandemic hits New York City, the NYC parks and recreation department has made a point of keeping city parks open.

Mitchell J. Silver, NYC parks commissioner told The New York Times there are no current plans to close the parks. “I’m optimistic. It’s critically important to get fresh air, it builds the immune system. People are out using parks. Twenty minutes in the park reduces stress, anxiety. You see people doing that today, given the times we’re in.”

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

Hunter reiterated a point Silver made: that spending time in nature is critical to boosting our immune system, which is essential to staving off health problems. A study by University of Illinois researcher Ming Kuo showed that “good immune system function is linked to resilience.” Hunter added that nature also helps improve cognitive function — our ability to pay attention, which is so important given everything going on.

Hunter’s study had such an impact because it was the first nature-focused one to sample the cortisol levels of relatively large numbers of subjects repeatedly over long stretches of time. 37 subjects were tested three times a week over 8 weeks. “The repeated testing of each person gave a realistic assessment of the stress reduction capacity of a ‘nature pill’ under the conditions of daily life.”

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the summer, Hunter’s subjects were given a wide berth in defining and finding their own nature experiences. For some, it was taking a walk in the park; for others it was sitting under a tree. “The only criteria was that they felt a connection with nature — that’s it.”

She gave her subjects an app, which prompted them to go outside. Many of her subjects, which had considered themselves avid outdoors people, were dismayed discover they weren’t going outside as much as they had thought. The app also enabled them to take photographs of whatever nature they experienced that moved them.

Examining cortisol levels in the saliva samples, Hunter and her researchers sought to figure out “the magic point” at which experiencing nature starts to relax people. She found that 20 minutes registered a significant reduction in stress. From 20-30 minutes, people are experiencing the “greatest efficiency in stress reduction, the biggest bang for the buck,” so to speak. After 40 minutes, there is continued stress relief but at slower rates.

Hunter said she gets one question a lot: “What if I don’t have 20 minutes?” Her answer: Even if you don’t have that amount of time at once, taking smaller breaks of 5-10 minutes helps, too.

The pandemic shows how important it is to embed nature wherever possible along streets and in pocket parks, plazas, and courtyards. Those nearby-nature experiences become more critical given people’s increasing time constraints and restrictions in traveling to big urban parks or nature preserves.

Hunter’s research was sponsored by the TKF Foundation. Learn more about their investments in scientific evidence demonstrating the health benefits of nature.

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

Urban air mobility / NASA

Atlanta’s Leading Landscape Architect, 93, Still Drawing — 03/09/20, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Edward L. Daugherty, the dean of Atlanta landscape architects, has seen many cycles of growth and decay. He has survived enough seasons to view his own wintertime with a sanguine eye.”

NASA Partners with 17 Companies to Invest in the Future of Urban Air Mobility — 03/09/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The concept of the flying car has lived in the popular imagination ever since the Space Age of the 1950s, yet a recent initiative by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could make urban airborne travel more likely than ever in automotive history.”

‘We Are Not Alone’: Life Under Coronavirus Lockdown in Italy — 03/10/20, CNN
“I’m in Rome, and the streets are basically empty. Rome is pretty famous for traffic jams, but there are none at the moment, there is very little traffic. ”

Esri Sets Up COVID-19 GIS Hub — 03/13/20, Planetizen
“Esri, the California-based geographic information systems (GIS) company, has launched the online ‘COVID-19 GIS Hub’ with a number of useful tools for tracking information about the spread and mitigation of coronavirus disease around the world.”

On a Last Walk Through the National Gallery, I’m Reassured by Images of an Uncertain Future — 03/13/20, The Washington Post
“On Wednesday, when the coronavirus pandemic was rapidly shuttering museums and cultural venues across the country, I decided to take a walk through the National Gallery of Art. This wasn’t a goodbye walk, but more an auf weidersehen walk: Until we meet again.”

In São Paulo, A Street Becomes an Urban Living Room

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

How can a street encourage people to explore, play, and hang out? How can art, plants, and furniture be combined to create a sense of place? In São Paulo, Brazil, a design collaboration between Brazilian firm Zoom Urbanismo Arquitetura e Design and furniture designers at LAO Engenharia & Design shows how. All Colors Sidewalk draws people in with its funky, organic charm.

In ArchDaily, the firms tell us that most streets in this mega-city, with a population of 12 million, are “very narrow, with irregular or no maintenance, and present many obstacles that discourage the circulation of pedestrians through the city.”

Through their re-imagining of the street landscape, the firms sought to show what an accessible space rich with layers would look like.

Along the 4,500-square-foot street, what grabs attention first is the flexible, wood street bleachers, which offer seating at street level and then perches above. The firms arranged them to create different views for people sitting, and flexible options for groups hanging out. At certain points, the bleachers rise up and form an arbor; at others, they become aerial structures for plants.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

To eliminate flooding, which is a common problem in São Paulo, the design team married permeable pavers with street rain gardens. But they also made sure stormwater management didn’t impede accessibility. The team selected a permeable paver that is even and poses no obstacle for wheelchair users.

Furthermore, tactile signals in the pavement complement accessible signage, making the space open to blind pedestrians or those with low vision. There is also a map of the local transportation system and nearby points of interest.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

To break up the monotony of the long wall lining the street, the design team incorporated crocheted “graffiti” and hung leaves with words knitted in them, which adds to the homemade feel of the place.

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko
All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

The project succeeds in creating a fresh landscape, a new sort of linear park. “We created the concept of [an] Urban Living Room: a furnished space where people are invited to sit, talk, wait, and rest — a living space in the middle of the city.”

All Colors Sidewalk / Sissy Eiko

Make Your Place Even Better: AARP Community Challenge Grants

In Los Angeles’ Westlake/MacArthur Park neighborhood, Golden Age Park shows the power of placemaking. With support from AARP, a property that was vacant for 30 years was transformed by landscape architect Daví de la Cruz into a community garden with a children’s play area and outdoor fitness spaces for adults.

AARP is seeking applications for its annual Community Challenge grant program, which funds projects that improve livability. Now in its fourth year, the grant program has awarded 376 grants to non-profits and governments at all scales in every U.S. state, D.C., Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands.

For 2020, AARP is focused on projects that can: increase civic engagement and create a broader sense of community inclusion and diversity; create vibrant public spaces; and improve transportation and connectivity through walkability, bikeability, wayfinding, and universal access.

The organization, which has some 38 million members, is also looking for projects that can support accessible and affordable housing options. In addition, AARP is interested in projects that can “demonstrate the tangible value of ‘Smart Cities'” through programs that “engage residents in accessing, understanding, and using data, and participating in decision-making to increase quality of life for all.”

According to Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, the grant program is “a great fit for those who care about placemaking. About 60 percent of the 375+ grants made to date have been focused on public space and/or placemaking.”

Applications for Community Challenge grants will be accepted until 11:59 pm ET on May 15, 2020. All applications must be submitted through their website and all projects must be completed by November 9, 2020. AARP states that the program is open to 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), 501(c)(6) nonprofits and government entities. Other types of organizations will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Together with Team Better Block, AARP has just released the Pop Up Placemaking Tool Kit, which outlines the what, why, how of temporary but impactful placemaking demonstrations. Team Better Block has also included a set of pop up placemaking “recipes,” with beginner, intermediate, and advanced options, on their website.

According to the 40-page toolkit available for free to download and print: “when communities of all types (urban, suburban, rural) and sizes experiment and demonstrate solutions, the quicker their methods can be refined and positive change achieved.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 16-29)

Chattahoochee RiverLands Greenway Study in Georgia / SCAPE

Landscape Architects Shift Emphasis to the Ecosystem, 02/22/20, AP News
“Landscape architects are finding themselves on the front lines of the climate change crisis, having to come up with creative ways to adapt and help mitigate problems like rising oceans and extreme weather as they design projects across the country.”

Houston Launches Multi-billion-dollar Resiliency Master Plan – 02/24/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed plans for a multi-billion-dollar initiative designed to prepare the city against future climate change-related disasters. The 186-page document, Resilient Houston, elaborates on methods the coastal city can adopt to become better prepared for future storms, sea-level rise, and the urban heat island effect.”

Fix for a Hated N.Y.C. Highway: How About an $11 Billion Tunnel? – 02/24/20, The New York Times
“Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle have all done it — razed hulking, unsightly highways dividing the heart of their downtowns, pushed a new roadway underground and turned the space above into an urban paradise. Could New York be next?”

Want to Grab a Late-Night Taco in Boston? The Neighbors Won’t Hear of It – 02/25/20, The Boston Globe
“El Jefe’s Taqueria founder John Schall is in a food fight with the City of Boston, and he doesn’t want it to play out quietly.”

Twitter for Urban Planning, 02/28/20, Planetizen
“Twitter is like all great cities: if you keep looking and figure out how to avoid a few key triggers, there are places and people for everyone. ‘Keep looking until you’ll find something you love,’ is a frequent saying about my home city of Los Angeles. The same is true of Twitter. The same is definitely true of Twitter, if what you love is planning.”

Tetris Square: The Heart of a Pixelated Community

Tetris Square / Lab D+H

Contemporary micro-apartments, which are between 50 and 350 square feet, started appearing en masse in New York City a few years ago. Marketed mostly to Millennials as an affordable housing option, they are actually a modern reincarnation of the single occupancy unit (SRO), which was popular in Manhattan in the 1950s and 60s. The new version of the micro-apartment is often added amid conventionally-sized units in apartment buildings; a few buildings are even dedicated to them.

In Guangzhou, China, the model has been scaled up into an entire community of tiny urban living spaces for young tech workers and their families. The Guangzhou Vanke Cloud City in Guangzhou, China, is a mixed-use community made up of four residential towers with 5,000 micro-apartments combined with office space for high-tech firms, a middle school, shopping, and restaurants.

The cloud in Cloud City refers to the information technology platform that enables data sharing. That cloud also helps defines the physical platform of the community. Just as an image forms out of many pixels, hosted as 0s and 1s in the cloud, the landscape of Guangzho Vanke Cloud City arises out of a modular, grid system.

Vanke, a major developer in China, with some $33 billion in revenue in 2018, has mixed-use developments across the country. For the Guangzhou Vanke Cloud City, they brought in Chinese landscape architecture firm Lab D+H to create a fun, tech-inspired landscape for the young cloud workers they hope to attract.

According to the firm, “with small apartments, young people can continue living in first-tier cities, enjoying rich career opportunities, modern facilities, comprehensive public services, and access to cutting-edge information.”

In the northwest corner of the community is the 6,000-square-meter Tetris Square, which shares elements of the design language of that classic game. From the aerial view, pieces of the plaza seem like they could turn and slot into place at any moment.

Tetris Square / Lab D+H

In Landezine, the firm states that there are playgrounds on either side of the square corridor. These include the Family Pocket, a place to swing in hammocks, and the Free Island, which is a “three-dimensional play facility for kids to explore spaces and exercise.”

Tetris Square / Lab D+H
Tetris Square / Lab D+H

There are more tech-inspired public spaces: the Cloud Curtain, the Cloud Mount, and the Cloud Pavilion. In front of the shopping mall, there is an amphitheater that also acts as an outdoor classroom for the middle school.

Tetris Square / Lab D+H

Lab D+H argues that trees are often minimized in Chinese plazas because they are seen as blocking views of shops and restaurants. The firm managed to slip in a grove of trees by integrating it into Family Pocket and Free Island. Trees are also arranged in a “dense-to-sparse” gradient order heading towards the mall.

Tetris Square / Lab D+H

The firm designed a pixelated approach to the landscape design and construction. “From softscape, to paving, to outdoor furniture and installation, landscape elements are arranged on this modular system so that they are easy to construct, assemble, and replace.”

Tetris Square / Lab D+H

The modular format also helped save money and reduce construction challenges. “The grid system of squares not only makes material fabrication and arrangement much cheaper, but also make construction costs more predictable and controllable, especially in China where construction quality is often unpredictable.”

Furniture is designed out of just two modules of pre-cast concrete, which are then assembled into 20 combinations. Pixels form the image.

Tetris Square / Lab D+H
Tetris Square / Lab D+H

Ideas Competition: Create an Iconic Landmark for Silicon Valley

San Jose Electric Light Tower / Wikipedia

San José, California, a major hub of Silicon Valley, was once home to a 207-foot-tall steel “moonlight tower” that used arcing incandescent lights to illuminate the city’s downtown. The tower was designed by J.J. Owen, the owner of the San Jose Mercury newspaper, who crowd-sourced some $3,500 in 1881 to build it. Some 34 years later, after suffering damage from wind storms, the tower collapsed.

Now, the San Jose Light Tower Corporation has initiated the Urban Confluence Silicon Valley ideas competition to generate concepts for a new technological landmark that can define contemporary Silicon Valley.

The organizers invite teams of landscape architects, artists, architects, urban planners, lighting designers, students, designers, engineers — “anyone with a passion for place-making” — to transform 5 acres of Arena Green, an existing city park in San José, into a true destination for Silicon Valley. Three finalists will receive $150,000 to further flesh out their proposals.

The organizers seek a “transformative design complete with dramatic lighting, a net-zero energy approach, and an impressive physical presence that will become a powerful and enduring symbol of how Silicon Valley operates as a bridge from past to present to future. Urban Confluence Silicon Valley can be a structure, an object, a sculpture, a work of architecture—with an activated landscape enjoyed both day and night.”

The Corporation proposes the 14.3-acre Arena Green at Guadalupe River Park and Gardens as the site for the project because of its central location. The park is across the street from a mixed-use development now in development: the 6-8 million-square foot, transit-oriented Google Downtown West. Arena Green is also two blocks from Diridon Station, which is being re-envisioned as a multi-modal hub for bus, light rail, BART regional transit, Amtrak, and high-speed rail, with an “expected ridership of 140,000 per day by 2040.” The new landmark is expected to help support “the growth of restaurants, bars, retail stores, hotels, service businesses, and residences within the area.”

The Arena Green area is also a true urban confluence: it is set within riparian corridors for the Guadalupe River and Los Gatos Creek, so just 5 acres of the site can be redeveloped — and it must be done in an ecologically-sensitive manner. Project proposals will need to demonstrate an understanding of the site’s river and creek ecosystem, lighting limitations given the proximity to Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport, and existing site-specific public art that can’t be removed.

Arena Green / Urban Confluence Silicon Valley

A public community panel will review all submissions and pick the top 50, which will be sent to a jury that includes Jon Cicirelli, San José director of parks and recreation; Susan Chin, former head of the Design Trust for Public Space; and landscape architect Jerry van Eyck, International ASLA, founder of !Melk.

There is no fee to enter the competition. The deadline is April 3, 2020. Read the detailed brief and explore resources for submitters.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 1-15)

Everglades Restored / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Miami Is the “Most Vulnerable” Coastal City Worldwide — 2/4/20, Scientific American
“Several major tourist attractions, including the Everglades, Biscayne National Park, and Miami Beach, are largely situated on land less than three feet above the high-water mark and may become permanently submerged by the end of the century.”

OLIN Receives Design Approval for D.C. Desert Storm Memorial — 2/6/20 The Architect’s Newspaper
“Once the site was secured (a location just north of the Lincoln Memorial and west of the Vietnam War Memorial) adjustments needed to be made to the design. The new design has lower walls that meld into the ground and includes a central water feature, which symbolizes a desert oasis as well as the international coalition that participated in the operations.

National Indigenous Landscape Architecture Award Announced — 2/9/20, Architecture & Design
“Planning for the [National Arcadia Landscape Architecture Award for Indigenous Students] has been in progress for almost twelve months, but the recent [Australian] bushfires brought a renewed focus on how Indigenous knowledge and traditional land and fire management practices can prevent fire damage and enable the return of healthy landscapes and ecosystems.”

Educator and Historian John Beardsley Selected to Curate Inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize — 2/11/20, Archinect
“The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) has named arts curator and landscape educator John Beardsley as the inaugural curator for the forthcoming Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.”

A Native Plant Guru’s Radical Vision for the American Yard — 2/12/20, The Washington Post
“The idea of planting gardens for wildlife and shrinking the lawn isn’t new, but [entomologist Doug Tallamy] wants to enlist every home garden in the battle to address the loss of biodiversity. The need has never been more urgent, he says.”

Franklin Park Is Poised for $28 million in Upgrades — and the City Wants Ideas on How to Spend the Money — 2/12/20, Boston.com
“Legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted crafted the ‘country park’ … that completes the Emerald Necklace. Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once lived in a small cabin on Schoolmaster Hill before Olmsted’s vision would arrive at the site decades later. Now, city officials want ideas to shape its future.”

Abandoned Amusement Park to Gain New Life as a Nature Park in Suzhou — 2/13/20, Inhabitat
“In Suzhou, China, an abandoned amusement park is being transformed into a 74-hectare nature park that will include a decommissioned roller coaster transformed into a habitat for birds. … Named ‘Shishan Park’ after its location at the foot of Shishan (Chinese for ‘Lion Mountain’), the urban park will provide a variety of family-oriented recreational amenities to cater to a rapidly growing, high-tech hub.”

A Daughter’s Disability. A Mother’s Ingenuity. And the Playground That’s Launching a Revolution — 2/14/20, Palo Alto Weekly
“Magical Bridge was inspired by [Olenka] Villarreal’s daughter, Ava, who has developmental disabilities, and by the utter lack of safe, public play spaces suited to Ava and others like her. Tucked in a corner of Mitchell Park, the brightly colored Magical Bridge includes a wheelchair-usable spinner and slides, swings that keep a user upright and fastened in, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, a wheelchair-usable treehouse and a stage — features that are friendly to people with visual impairments, autism and cognitive disabilities.”

Interview with Kotchakorn Voraakhom: How to Live with Water

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA / Landprocess

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, is founder of Landprocess and the Porous City Network. Voraakhom is featured in TIME magazine’s 2019 TIME 100 Next, a list that spotlights 100 rising stars who are shaping the future of the world, along with their list of 15 women fighting against climate change. Voraakhom is chairwoman of Landscape Without Borders of the International Federation of Landscape Architects, Asia Pacific Region (IFLA APR). She is a TED Fellow and Echoing Green Climate Fellow. She received her master’s in landscape architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2019 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego.

The 12-acre Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park in Bangkok, the first new park in the city in 30 years, is a model for how to design with nature. Tilted at 3 degrees, the park funnels storm water into a retention basin that can safely double in size amid heavy rains. How did you come up with this idea to incline the entire park?

Bangkok is a city of water but we don’t know how to drain our water. We’ve been through many floods: either disastrous flash floods or the ones that are part of our daily life in Bangkok. This happens because we don’t know where the water should go. We don’t use the canal system as it should be used. In Bangkok, it is very sad that the canal department is under the sewage department. Canals have been destroyed through urban development.

The city, along with the entire center of the country, is flat because of sedimentation. So I wondered: how can we create a water container in the city? I thought about our legendary Monkey King, and his “monkey cheek” approach to storage. Do you know about the monkey cheek? The monkey holds food in its cheek. When he is hungry, he just continues eating. If not, he just holds the food there. It’s very simple way; no deep theory or anything, but just a natural way of being.

If you don’t have hilly topography, like in Bangkok, you create the topography and just tilt it.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, Bangkok, Thailand / LANDPROCESS

At the detention basin’s edge, there are stationary bicycles. When visitors peddle the bikes, they turn wheels that aerate the water. Why is it important to engage visitors this way?

Because it’s so human. I remember walking my dad to the park. He’s a designer and said: “This is the highlight.” You know when you get complimented from your parent, it’s the best.

The park addresses climate change and flooding in a very technical way. But at the end I wanted people to feel they can be part of the solution by just being there, peddling the water bike. The water level in the detention basin also changes. Just the physical nature of pedaling is quite direct.

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, Bangkok, Thailand / LANDPROCESS

In your TED Talk, you said the 15 million residents of Bangkok are living on a “shifting, muddy river delta.” Bangkok, New York City, Shanghai, New Orleans and many other delta cities are slowly sinking as sea levels rise. How can landscape architects help solve this problem?

We try to fix problems, but we are actually the problem. The reason our city is sinking is systematic. The issue doesn’t just come from building a city on top of this delta; it also because there is no more sediment coming from upstream. Dams that create electricity are blocking sediment flow. We also don’t let the land absorb rain. We have to see the problem systematically and fix what you have done rather than try to fix nature.

As landscape architects, we work with the land. We know how these systems should function. We can teach people how to live with water again, which is much better than fearing it. Living with water is the vernacular way in Thailand. We have long had homes on stilts and floating platforms. We even have floating markets. We are used to living on the edge between land and water.

In the future, floating cities are even possible. But they are not really futuristic, as they have already happened in the past. The future is about knowing where you’re from and using that in a new context. I don’t think the future will be these flying cyborgs or something, nothing so inhuman.

In the past, flooding meant food. Sediment was part of seasonal change. Thailand would flood for one or two months and we would just deal with it. Today, we forget that flooding is about transformation. It’s only our relationship with water that has changed in a negative way. Landscape architecture can help people see a different relationship with water is possible.

For Bangkok’s 250th anniversary, which is in 2032, city leaders are creating the Bangkok 250 Plan, a major redevelopment effort that aims to create a more livable city in 17 districts in the urban core. By then, the city’s population is expected to grow to 11 million, an 18 percent increase over today, and the number of vehicles on the road is expected to grow by 1 million to 10 million. As a consultant on this planning effort, what are you advising the city to do?

We have a big team of urban designers, architects, and urban planners, and then there’s me, the landscape architect. Of course, we want to revitalize the canal system. We want to incorporate much more green space. But we don’t want to be naïve and just hope for more green space if there is no land. We have to be innovative about how we insert green spaces.

There is one project we are implementing right now with the current mayor to reuse a failed governmental mega-project. In Asian cities, there are many projects like this that were built and then stopped. There’s so much that can be renewed. But this also means the city is a challenging context.

You have often gone to the rooftops, designing the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Garden on the former helipad of the Ramathibodi Hospital, the Siam Green Sky Urban Farm on top of a building at Chulalongkorn University, and a new green roof on the Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University. How does developing rooftops help you achieve your goals for the city?

At the Ramathibodi Hospital, we removed a helipad and replaced it with a healing garden. Green roofs are one of the key solutions for how to make a city more porous and sustainable.

Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Garden / LANDPROCESS

The Thammasat University in Bhutantanang, which is in the greater Bangkok area, will become the biggest urban farming green roof in Asia at 7,000 square meters (75,000 square feet). The roof mimics the structure of rice terraces and how farmers use topography to absorb rain, slow down runoff, and grow food.

Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University, Panoramic Studio / LANDPROCESS
Puey Learning Center at Thammasat University, Panoramic Studio / LANDPROCESS

You have also planned and designed many health care environments that provide patients with access to nature, including the Siriraj Hospice Center. How do you incorporate Thai cultural and spiritual beliefs about nature?

The other hat I wear is creative art therapist. I have many questions about death: What does it feel like? How can I help these people?

When it comes to healing, no one can help you. Doctors can cure you, but they cannot heal you. You have to heal yourself. And how do you heal yourself? You heal yourself through natural processes.

Perhaps with my Buddhist beliefs, I feel there’s so much suffering in these hospices. Too many hospitals only think about more patients without thinking about how to create healthy spaces for them. I’m talking about government hospitals in Thailand; you can’t imagine how crowded they are. These people deserve healing environments, so we are trying to find the right space in hospitals. I’m helping many other hospitals as well.

In addition to the work with your firm, you’re also founder of Porous City Network, a nonprofit that co-designs water management solutions with vulnerable communities. What have been the results of the effort so far?

Porous City Network was started two years ago. Traditional client-based practice can only solve some problems. If we want to really tackle big problems, we need public education and advocacy. I’m going to try to expand the network into other cities in Southeast Asia where they are facing the same problems.

We helped a community along the coastline on the border of Cambodia, which is actually at the narrowest part of Thailand. The people are Thai but have no land rights on paper, so they build into the ocean. The government deemed them invaders and tried to displace them.

We helped them negotiate with the government and create a plan that allows them to inhabit land in the ocean, which also involves restoring mangrove forests. They are the first community that has received government permission to do that.

This means the solution can be implemented in Thailand’s other 7,000 fishing villages, rather than just displacing these communities.

I also bring landscape architecture students so they can learn about community participation processes. I use landscape architecture to help these communities.

The Hat Lek community on the border of Thailand and Cambodia / LANDPROCESS
Porous City Network community engagement process in Hat Lek / LANDPROCESS
Porous City Network community engagement process in Hat Lek. Voraakhom meets with community members. / LANDPROCESS