Social Urbanism: From the Medellín Model to a New Global Movement

Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America / Applied Research + Design, ORO

By Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA

Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America, a new book by Maria Bellalta, ASLA, dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the Boston Architectural College, is a welcome addition to the growing number of publications on the social justice-oriented form of urbanism, architecture, and public space emanating from Medellín and Colombia. The achievements of social urbanism have rightfully become synonymous with Medellín in the world of landscape architecture, urban planning and design, and architecture.

So what is social urbanism? Is it a top-down and bottom-up planning, design, and implementation process for improving the quality of life of low-income and disenfranchised communities? Appropriately, there is no single definition in the book. There are various takes, which range from comparisons to Jaime Lerner’s strategy of urban acupuncture, integrated community approaches (engagement and participation), and projects and practices in Mexico and Brazil.

While this lack of definition may leave some readers dissatisfied, the book provides a chronology of Medellín’s many social urbanist endeavors and institutional actors, which are represented by a collection of acronyms: PRIMED, POT, EDU, PUI, EPM, UVA, AEI, etc. All these point to the value of complex solutions that include multiple stakeholders and interests.

But the results are not without shortcomings. In Gloria Aponte’s critical contribution, she highlights the lack of ecological considerations in the practice of social urbanism in Medellín. This omission is further described in Juan Camilo Jaramillo’s article on the damaged environment of the city – the accumulated negative impacts on air, water, land, and biodiversity.

Social Urbanism is a predominantly graphic book. It contains appealing and comprehensive social, economic, urban, and environmental data-based maps of Latin America, Colombia, and Medellín. As such, it is a book aligned with the work of architect and professor Felipe Correa, including his books on Sao Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City, Mexico; and Quito, Ecuador.

La Aurora Trece de Noviembre and Barrio Independencia informal settlement at Medellin’s urban periphery / Integrated Urban Projects, a co-production with Daniela Coray and Maria Bellalta

Social Urbanism also contains the DNA for several potential books that I hope emerge soon. Chapter One on Latin America’s geography is succinct, but as a chapter may be too ambitious. The maps describing the resource extraction of the continent are also a good companion for Correa’s Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America. In Chapter Two, the book shifts its focus to the urban history of Medellín. Social urbanism, the heart of the book, makes up Chapter Three.

Chapter Four is a collection of studio projects developed through the many visits and design studios Bellalta has organized in Medellín with students from the Boston Architectural College and their student and faculty collaborators from the prestigious Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB), a private, Catholic, and powerful institutional actor in Medellín’s transformation. This chapter reveals the breadth and depth of opportunities for exploration by planning and design students. The projects speak to the unfulfilled promise of progress in Latin America and the potential of social urbanism across the region. Chapter Five, “Invited Voices,” includes short articles by some of the key contemporary actors reshaping Medellin, including Jorge Perez Jaramillo and Alejandro Echeverri Restrepo, former director of the Urban Development Company.

Social Urbanism opens with a prologue by Echeverri, who highlights the quality of the graphic presentations of data. Indeed, some of the graphics are spectacular, and their presentation is supported by the generous book format. But some graphics are not immediately digestible. Take your time to process them, especially the statistical information. (The book is bilingual, with English and Spanish in parallel, only in the index, acknowledgements, prologue, and introduction sections — a limitation I hope is resolved soon through an important and potentially impactful full translation in Spanish).

Bellalta views “landscape as a cultural space, influenced by geography.” Her introduction focuses on the exploitation of the natural resources and the people of Latin America by Europe and the United States. Latin America created wealth that Latin Americans did not enjoy, because they were enslaved and offered arduous low-paid labor. Local and foreign corruption and greed, which was fueled by resource extraction, explain Latin America’s permanent under development. In the region of Medellín, cocaine, gold, flowers, and coffee were the focus of extraction. The book is written as a criticism of this social and environmental injustice, illustrating how Europe and the United States were indifferent to the consequences of their actions. This is one of the book’s strengths.

A few years ago in Medellín, I interviewed architect and urbanist Jorge Perez Jaramillo, former dean of the School of Architecture at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, former planning director of Medellin, and author of another recent and significant book on Medellín, which is summarized in an article in the “Invited Voices” section of the book.

Perez Jaramillo described his city as a community that hit rock bottom in the early 1990s. After decades of violence and crime produced by powerful drug cartels, and the cumulative effects of decades of civil war and guerrilla activity, there was nowhere else to go except up or drown in the bottom. This springing up was fertile ground for a socially-oriented urban transformation.

If you are interested in Medellín because you know of the many beautiful public buildings, parks, and infrastructure built in the city in the last two decades, and you want to know more about these structures, then this is not your book. All the important examples — Biblioteca España, the escalators in Comuna 13, etc. — are included, but only as part of generous photographic essays woven through the chapters. The fact that the book avoids a design focus is refreshing. Social Urbanism instead targets the social and political processes that enabled these projects to exist.

Comuna 10 escalator in Medellin’s peripheral communities / Maria Bellalta

The book seeks to answer: What kind of administrative, professional, academic, social, and cultural processes spawned the great design quality so widely recognized by many publications and awards? How can other cities transform inert and obstructive infrastructure, such as municipal water tanks, which in Medellín have become social-public infrastructure in the form of the Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAs)?

Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAs) / Maria Bellalta

This is not a how-to book, because the story of Medellín demonstrates that the great design quality could have only happened the way it did there. It may be due to the unique social, cultural, economic, and environmental conditions; the “Paisa” history, identity, and territory; the city’s resilient community; and numerous outstanding urban planning and design leaders, politicians, and academics.

Social urbanism has improved the quality of life for many who had been systematically ignored. But inequality has also increased in Medellín, and multiple projects and plans remain truncated, postponed, or unimplemented.

The important, old-yet-also-new ideas of social urbanism remind us to be always in action. Public health, safety, and welfare, which landscape architects and others are responsible for, must be sustained. As Bellalta proposes, social urbanism must transition from model to global movement.

Sketch study, Medellin / Maria Bellalta
Sketch study, Medellin / Maria Bellalta
Sketch study, Medellin / Maria Bellalta

Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA, is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Arkansas.

ASLA Releases Policy Recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration

ASLA 2020 Professional Urban Design Award of Excellence. Dilworth Plaza. OLIN / James Ewing, OTTO

ASLA released a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration titled “Landscape Architects Design Vibrant, Resilient, and Just Communities for All – Recommendations for the Biden-Harris Administration.”

“Our climate is in crisis. Social and racial injustice issues continue to go unaddressed. The pandemic is forcing us to rethink public space,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). “Landscape architects aren’t just designing resilient, sustainable solutions for all these problems – they’re designing the public policies necessary to support that vital work.”

The report makes specific, actionable policy recommendations in four major areas:

  • Applying STEM-related design principles to protect communities.
  • Addressing climate change through sustainable, resilient design.
  • Supporting green community infrastructure solutions.
  • Promoting racial, social, and environmental justice in design.

ASLA’s recommendations are supported by other organizations in the industry, including the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF).

“The pandemic has revealed now more than ever the value of public open spaces: we are human beings and need to be outside and with other human beings,” said Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, CEO of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF). “These policy recommendations provide overdue support to enable landscape architects to design healthy, accessible and equitable outdoor places for people to connect with nature and each other, and rebuild the public realm infrastructure.”

“Landscape architects play a vital and irreplaceable role in the design of the built environment. It’s time their recommendations for how that design is governed are heard and implemented,” Carter-Conneen added. “ASLA urges the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress to review these recommendations and begin the process of implementing them.”

ASLA and our partners look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress on implementing these policy recommendations that will lead to vibrant, resilient and just communities across the nation.

Read the full report

About the Report

The American Society of Landscape Architects compiled a comprehensive series of specific, actionable policy recommendations designed to give landscape architects a seat at the table and support for their vital work. The report is broken down into four sections.

ASLA 2016 Professional Communications Honor Award. Sea Change: Boston, Sasaki Associates / Sasaki Associates

The first, Landscape Architects Apply STEM to Protect the Public, outlines the measures necessary to assist landscape architects in meeting the economic demands and challenges facing our nation.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Support continued state licensure of highly complex technical professions, including landscape architecture, to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
  • Provide targeted and sustained COVID-19 relief for small businesses, including landscape architecture firms.
  • Appoint landscape architects to key positions throughout the Biden-Harris administration, including within the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture, and in the Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, the U.S. Access Board, and others.
  • Include landscape architecture on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Designated Degree Program List.

The second section, Landscape Architects Lead in Climate Solutions, focuses on policy solutions that support landscape architects’ work to design resilient, sustainable spaces that help communities mitigate and adapt to the effects of the ongoing climate crisis.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Create a comprehensive, science-based climate action plan to significantly reduce carbon emissions.
  • Establish adaptation and mitigation strategies using natural systems to make communities more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
  • Protect underserved communities from climate and environmental injustices.
  • Adopt the Sustainable Sites Initiative® (SITES®) for all federal projects.
  • Reverse rules, regulations, and policies from the Trump administration that weaken environmental protections and ignore climate change, specifically involving the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) and the Waters of the U.S.( WOTUS).

The third section, Landscape Architects Transform Community Infrastructure, outlines policies to encourage the designing and building of community infrastructure projects in a way that fosters sustainable development, generates jobs, encourages healthy lifestyles, and creates resilient, equitable, and economically vibrant communities.

Recommendations in this section center around the following goals:

  • Upgrade to a multimodal transportation network.
  • Fix our nation’s water management systems.
  • Recognize public lands, parks, and open space as “critical infrastructure.”
  • Design resilient communities.

The fourth and final section, Landscape Architects Seek Racial, Social, and Environmental Justice, provides specific recommendations that seek to address the inequities that harm underserved communities, including communities of color, low-income populations, and Tribal and Indigenous communities across the country.

Recommendations in this section include:

  • Work with Congress to codify Executive Order 12898, so that it is permanent law for federal agencies to identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental effects of agency actions on low-income and minority communities.
  • Join stakeholders across the country in advancing the tenets of the Environmental Justice for All Act (H.R. 5986), which help to ensure that all communities are protected from pollution and that all voices are heard in the federal environmental decision-making.
  • Consider policies that promote design techniques as a tool to address racial, environmental, and social justice for all.

Read the full list of recommendations

ASLA 2021 Professional & Student Awards Call for Entries

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Naval Cemetery Landscape. Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects / Max Touhey

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is now accepting submissions for its 2021 Professional and Student Awards Program.

The ASLA Awards Program is the oldest and most prestigious in the landscape architecture profession. They honor the most innovative landscape architecture projects and the brightest ideas from up-and-coming landscape architecture students.

“The ASLA Professional & Student Awards recognize the most innovative and impactful work in the profession,” said Tom Mroz, 2021 president of ASLA. “Our professional winners are leaders in the industry. Our student winners represent the best and brightest hope for the future. Each year, we get entries from all around the world. I can’t wait to see the creative projects this year’s Call for Entries brings.”

Award recipients receive featured coverage in Landscape Architecture Magazine and are honored at a special Awards Presentation ceremony in the fall.

Submissions for ASLA Professional Awards are due no later than 11:59 PST on Friday, March 12, 2021.

Submissions for ASLA Student Awards are due no later than 11:59 PST on Monday, May 24, 2021.

ASLA bestows Professional Awards in General Design, Residential Design, Urban Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research categories. In each of these categories, juries select a number of Honor Awards and may select one Award of Excellence. One Landmark Award is also presented each year.

The 2021 Professional Awards Jury includes:

  • Chair: Thaïsa Way, FASLA – Dumbarton Oaks
  • Virginia Burt, FASLA – Virginia Burt Designs, Inc.
  • Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affiliate ASLA – Sahar Coston-Hardy Photography
  • Perry Howard, FASLA – Greensboro, NC USA
  • Kene Okigbo, ASLA – RDG Planning & Design
  • Faith Okuma, ASLA – Surroundings Studio, LLC
  • Karen Phillips, FASLA – NYS Homes & Community Renewal
  • David Rubin, FASLA – David Rubin Land Collective
  • Emma Skalka, Hon. ASLA – Victor Stanley
ASLA 2020 Student Communications Award of Excellence. Jia: Bringing Landscape Architecture to Webtoons / July Aung

ASLA bestows Student Awards in General Design, Residential Design, Urban Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Community Service, and Student Collaboration. In each of these categories, juries select a number of Honor Awards and may select one Award of Excellence.

The 2021 Student Awards Jury includes:

  • Chair: Diane Jones Allen, FASLA – Design Jones LLC
  • Magdalena Aravena, ASLA – Lamar Johnson Collaborative
  • Jane Berger – Freelance Journalist
  • Rebecca Bradley, ASLA – Cadence
  • L. Irene Compadre, ASLA – Arbolope Studio
  • Gabriel Diaz Montemayor, ASLA – University of Arkansas
  • Jessica Henson, ASLA – OLIN
  • Radhika Mohan – Enterprise Community Partners
  • Paola Moya, Assoc. AIA – Moya Design Partners

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

Frank Gehry Previews an Updated Vision for the L.A. River as New Master Plan Is Unveiled — 01/15/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The river cuts through 17 neighborhoods and the design team, comprised of Gehry Partners along with landscape architects OLIN and engineering firm Geosyntec, were tasked with both creating site-specific installations, crossings, trails, flood mitigation measures, and landscaped platforms, as well as kits-of-parts and common design elements to create a unifying vernacular.”

Smithsonian Scales Back $2 Billion Expansion Plan — 01/12/21, The New York Times
“The Smithsonian is currently completing the first project under the master plan, a renovation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s exterior and, soon, the sculpture garden.”

$60 Million High Line Expansion to Connect Park to Moynihan Train Hall — 01/11/21, The New York Times
“Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Sunday that the High Line will be extended to connect to the newly opened Moynihan Train Hall, a project that he said help spur development in the surrounding neighborhoods and boost an economy facing a deep crisis because of the pandemic.”

Paris Agrees to Turn Champs-Élysées into ‘Extraordinary Garden’ — 01/10/21, The Guardian
“The mayor of Paris has said a €250m (£225m) makeover of the Champs-Élysées will go ahead, though the ambitious transformation will not happen before the French capital hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics.”

‘Slow Streets’ Disrupted City Planning. What Comes Next? — 01/06/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“In many cities, the swift rollout of car-restricted streets at the start of the pandemic faced fierce community resistance. Now planners are changing their playbook.”

Most Popular DIRT Posts of 2020

Harbor Spring, Michigan / Robert Gibbs

While we look ahead to what’s new in the built and natural environments, it’s also valuable to look back at what attracted readers’ attention the most last year. Here’s a review of the 10 most popular DIRT posts of 2020.

Readers wanted to know more about the causes of the pandemic and its impacts on human and environmental health and local economies. Contributions from ASLA members explored the health risks of destroying biodiversity and expanding into natural areas and offered creative planning and design solutions to reduce the chances of another virus-driven catastrophe. Amid the global Black Lives Matter protest movement, readers also sought to learn more from Black landscape architects on their experiences with racism — and the need to preserve and celebrate Black landscapes.

ASLA members: please send us your original op-eds or articles on topics that inspire you. And tell us about your new projects and research. Please email us at info@asla.org.

After Lockdown, New Opportunities for Downtown Shopping Districts

Robert Gibbs, FASLA: “Since the earliest human settlements, the retail experience has evolved to meet the needs of the public. This evolution has taken us from rural markets to towns, cities, suburban shopping malls, big box mega-stores, and, more recently, the Internet. But what will retail shopping look like once COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people return to the wild for their shopping experiences?”

Interview with Walter Hood: Black Landscapes Matter

Walter Hood, ASLA: “Sometimes places are palimpsests, meaning part of the brick and mortar, and some of them are based in memories, the passing of time. For people of color who are marginalized, stories get lost. Each project is fraught with chance. I am not trying to solve a problem, per se. I’m trying to put something out in the world that has been covered up, erased, which might allow people to see the world and themselves in a different way.”

Interactive Maps Track Western Wildfires

Amid the continuing devastation, an interactive map from ESRI, which creates geographic information system software, enables users to track active fires by name or location in near real time and sort by timeline and magnitude. The map indicates each fire’s estimated start date and its current level of containment. Another layer provides a smoke forecast for any given location.

The Pandemic Offers an Opportunity to Re-Wild Our Communities

Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA: “My view is that feral green agglomerations will pop up across cities and suburbs. Residents will benefit from their habitat patches, stormwater storage, carbon sequestration, and makeshift community gathering areas.”

Biodiversity and Pandemic Diseases (or How We Came to Know Our World in 2020)

Kristina Hill, Affil. ASLA: “In the 21st century, globalized economic growth has reached the end of its rope. Economies can’t continue to expand without creating new pandemic risks, as more people press up against the habitat of more wildlife or raise domestic animals in unhealthy conditions. We’re now part of one big, highly connected planetary ecosystem that’s going to bite us back hard if we step on it the wrong way.”

Amid the Pandemic, Take Time to Reconnect with Nature

If you are in a place impacted by COVID-19, 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.

Suburban Sprawl Increases the Risk of Future Pandemics

Michael Grove, FASLA: “Degraded habitats of any kind can create conditions for viruses to cross over, whether in Accra or Austin. The disruption of habitat to support our suburban lifestyle is bringing us closer to species with which we have rarely had contact. By infringing on these ecosystems, we reduce the natural barriers between humans and host species, creating ideal conditions for diseases to spread. These microbes are not naturally human pathogens. They become human pathogens because we offer them that opportunity.”

Asia’s Largest Urban Rooftop Farm Is a Model of Integrated Design

At first, the images of Thammasat University Rooftop Farm seem like renderings, but they are in fact real. Designed by Landprocess, which is led by landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, the 1.7-acre rooftop farm in Bangkok, Thailand, is not only mesmerizing but also a model of sustainable multi-use infrastructure.

I Could Have Been Ahmaud Arbery

Andrew Sargeant, ASLA: “We must change the narrative about investing in Black landscape architects and other minority designers as ‘helping them.’ Investment in diverse people and communities is investing in the future of the profession. I don’t want ‘help.'”

How Will the Pandemic Impact the Built Environment?

Throughout the Congress for New Urbanism’s Virtual Gathering, landscape architects, planners, architects, and developers struggled to figure out how the pandemic is impacting communities and the built environment — and tried to foresee what changes are coming in the near future.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (December 16-31)

25 Cottage Street, Brookline, Massachusetts / Brookline Preservation Commission, via The Architect’s Newspaper

H. H. Richardson and John Charles Olmsted Homes Get Temporary Reprieve from the Wrecking Ball — 12/31/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Brookline’s Green Hill historic district reflected an ‘extraordinary confluence’ of design talent […] Frederick Law Olmsted, John Charles Olmsted, and H. H. Richardson ‘worked within yards of one another, shaping Nineteenth and early Twentieth-Century architecture and landscape design in ways that continue to reverberate today.'”

Landscape Architecture and Industrial Design Feature in UNSW Sydney’s Varied Student Show — 12/23/20, Dezeen
“Landscape design that explores urban nature and an ergonomic chair designed for musicians are among the varied student projects exhibited in part two of the UNSW Sydney’s school show.”

Op-Ed: How to Fix a National Register of Historic Places That Reflects Mostly White History — 12/22/20, The Los Angeles Times
“Less than 8% of sites on the National Register are associated with women, Latinos, African Americans or other minorities. The César E. Chávez National Monument, established just eight years ago, was the first unit in the National Park System commemorating any aspect of modern Latino history.”

Nominee Buttigieg Vows To Dismantle ‘Racist’ Freeways — 12/22/20, Streetsblog
“President-elect Biden’s path breaking pick for Transportation Secretary says he’ll reverse decades of discriminatory planning by expanding public transit and, most important, dismantling urban freeways that were built to destroy Black communities and led to decades of health and wealth inequity.”

City of Boston Is Working with Architectural Firm to Rethink Copley Square — 12/16/20, The Boston Globe
“’We have a much-loved square which hasn’t seen any updates since the late ’80s and wasn’t designed for the kind of traffic it now gets in the 21st century,’ said Kate Tooke, a landscape architect at Sasaki, a Watertown-based global design firm that has been hired by the Walsh administration to design upgrades for the square.”

From Ancient Rome to Contemporary Singapore: The Evolution of Conservatories

The Conservatory: Gardens Under Glass / Princeton Architectural Press

By Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA

According to Pliny, Roman Emperor Tiberius’s doctors instructed their charge to consume a fruit of the Cucurbits family each day. To grow these melon and cucumber fruits year-round on his home island of Capri, Tiberius directed construction of specularia: “[He] had raised beds made in frames upon wheels, by means of which the Cucumis were moved and exposed to the full heat of the sun; while, in winter, they were withdrawn, and placed under the protection of frames glazed with mirror-stone.”

Thus begins The Conservatory: Gardens Under Glass. Illustrating their text with stunning photography, the authors Alan Stein and Nancy Virts, co-founders of Maryland’s Tanglewood Conservatories, survey the evolution of the conservatory in Europe, North America, and, ultimately, the world. The conservatory, an outgrowth of global trade, imperialism, and innovation, embodies a historical leap in the conjoining of architecture and landscape architecture—the extension of the growing season by manipulating the outputs of the sun.

Winter-plaats in den Hoff van d’Academie Tot Leyden, engraving, Johannes Commelin, 1676 / The LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

After specularia, the next great innovation in overwintering plants didn’t occur until the arrival of oranges to Europe in the late fifteenth century. Wood and stone structures called orangeries protected the citrus from cold temperatures. At first merely functional, these buildings grew increasingly extravagant, achieving maximal opulence in the seventeenth century at Louis XIV’s Versailles. There, the orangery, 492 feet long and 42 feet high with double windows and thick walls, warmed over 1,000 orange trees.

And yet, an “ordinary stone-and-glass orangery” was not suitable for Hugh Percy, the third duke of Northumberland, who needed a structure for his collection of exotic plants—“the floral dividend of Great Britain’s expanding global empire.”

Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire, England, map, Colomb, John Charles Ready, 1886 / Boston Public Library, Normal B. Leventhal Map Center, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

Lucky for him, the industrial advances of the nineteenth century were taking hold: new fabrication methods for glass and metal made them ubiquitous and affordable, and standardization increased speed and affordability of construction. With all that at hand, in 1827 Charles Fowler designed the Great Conservatory for Percy’s Syon Park in England, a structure of iron webbing connected by countless panes of glass: the first conservatory.

Syon Park Conservatory / Photo by Alan Stein, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

With material innovation came a shift in intention. Instead of gardens of pleasure for the wealthy, conservatories also became research centers to study the medicinal and industrial value of the plants they housed. The Palm House (1848) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in England particularly embodied this transition. Not only did the conservatory present the first structural use of wrought iron at such a large scale, but it was also free for the public to enter. Kew’s research center served as model for conservatories around the world.

If the Palm House marked a turning point in the use of wrought iron, the Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton did the same for glass. Constructed as the Exposition Hall for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the “revolutionary modular structure” occupied nineteen acres and reached a height of 168 feet—and was built, in fact, around several elm trees on site. The immense amount of glass was enabled by the production of large panes, and machine fabrication allowed uniformity, affordability, and rapid installation. After the international Great Exhibition hosted over 14,000 exhibitors and 6 million visitors, a flurry of conservatory construction swept the world. The Crystal Palace’s light, open space, and facility of construction subsequently informed architecture of all kinds, and the relationship between buildings and the outdoors.

The Crystal Palace Exhibition, London, painting / Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries; Hornbake Digitization Center, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, conservatories at the scale of the Crystal Palace emerged across Europe, growing increasingly elaborate in form and detail. Serving as “a way for the wealthy to preen and for universities to pursue research,” they seemingly offered an acceptable display of affluence. British conservatory design influence emerged from the Chateau Lednice Conservatory in the Czech Republic (1845), the Palm House conservatory (1880) at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, as well as further south in Madrid and Milan.

The Schönbrunn Palace Park conservatory, Vienna, Austria / Photo by Alan Stein, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

North Americans, too, replicated the British conservatory model. They didn’t have an empire, but they had their own brand of colonialism, and, “like the Europeans, Americans needed places to conserve and study what had been found.” New York built its own Crystal Palace (1853); San Francisco erected its Conservatory of Flowers (1879); and Pittsburgh, the Phipps Conservatory (1893). Conservatories became integrated with the City Beautiful movement, whose romanticized parks often included glasshouses, like those in Baltimore and Chicago.

Throughout this progression, as note Marc Hachadourian and Todd Forrest in the volume’s introduction, “the history of conservatory design is the history of humankind’s obsession with cultivating rare, exotic, useful, and beautiful plants.” As such, it is often a history of the elite, as those with the means to obsess over such plants have usually been those of power and wealth—a fact made clear in The Conservatory. But also as such, the history of conservatory design is of those who labored in the conservatories, the factory workers of the industrial revolution, and the territories from which the conservatory plants were snatched, newly “discovered.”

Mount Vernon Orangery, United States / © National Portrait Gallery, London, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

The authors do not eschew the problematic imperial stimulus behind conservatories. And they importantly note that, in the days of orangeries, the primary difference between European and American versions was their work force: American orangeries were built and maintained by enslaved people. Yet this volume begs more such admissions and revelations. As Kofi Boone, FASLA, writes: “what if landscape architecture were described with some acknowledgement of the dynamics of race, class, gender, and power?” Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, in which sat the Peters Rawlings Conservatory (1888), mandated recreational segregated facilities for Black and white individuals until the 1950s. What bearing did this racial division have on visitors to the conservatory?

The history of conservatories also prompts inquiry into their present-day purposes as we struggle to chart new habits beyond our imperial and colonial pasts. Most historic structures have rightly dedicated themselves to education and research, and, along with newly constructed ones, have become leaders in environmental efforts and stewards of biodiversity. Kew, for instance, has played a critical role in protecting Taxus wallichinana, a Nepalese plant from which an anti-cancer drug derives. Though, these initiatives too can be seen as a contemporary embodiment of the same problematic worldview that birthed the structures: a worldview that collects, “protects,” controls, and systematizes the exotic Other.

The modern structures, like their antecedents, exemplify technological advance and trends. Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory (1989), also a modern research institution, was recognized for its energy conservation. The two conservatories at Parc André Citroën (1992) in Paris stand upright through tension cables that underpin skins of glass. Amazon’s Spheres (2018) at its corporate headquarters in Seattle bring nature to its employees so they may “think more collaboratively and creatively” (there are certainly much more cynical interpretations).

And yet, what if a modern conservatory were rooted in and respectful of place and culture, rather than exploitative of them? One of the book’s few glasshouses from the Southern Hemisphere, Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay (2012), offers an example in part. Climate change takes center stage at its Cloud Forest, where the visitor ascends the 135-foot thickly vegetated Cloud Mountain. The path winds through different sections, among them “Lost World, “Earth Check,” and “+5 Degrees,” each revealing calamitous effects of a changing climate on plants.

The anthropological alterations of the planet may have themselves altered the gesture of the conservatory. Our longstanding obsession to cultivate plants divorced from site — of a piece with the driving forces of the climate crisis — has turned out to be a preemptive salve: the modern conservatory has germ in the earth that was.

Gardens by the Bay, Flower Dome Conservatory, Singapore / Thebigland / Shutterstock.com, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

Indeed, from the current vantage point, a visit to a conservatory does seem of the past. In the Covid-19 era, who would elect an indoor nature over that outdoors? But this moment will likely pass, and The Conservatory makes a persuasive argument for the role of conservatories in our contemporary world. The authors’ passion for the structures, and their admiration for the assiduity required to erect and tend them, similarly convinces the reader of their magic.

Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, is with Hood Design Studio and co-editor of the new book Black Landscapes Matter.

Black Cultural Landscapes Can Be a Source of Healing

Black Bottom before urban renewal / “Urban Renewal and the Destruction of Black Bottom.” Environmental History in Detroit. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2015, via Looking Glass

Black American cultural landscapes are often made invisible and disrespected. During a session at reVISION ASLA 2020, three Black women landscape architects and students explained how these places can instead form the basis of more affirming, inclusive, and resonant place-making today, which in turn can help heal the scars of the past.

“The bottom is the lowest point, the deepest part, a place with marshy soil. It’s also a colloquial term for Black landscapes that are no good, devalued, and vulnerable,” explained Ujijji Davis Williams, ASLA, an urban planner and landscape architect with SmithGroup.

In many cities, “the bottom is where Black people were confined to live.” Escaping the Jim Crow-era racism of the South, Black migrants moved to northern cities and took up residence in these low-lying areas, which often experienced flooding and offered very limited access to the rest of the city. Later, Black Americans were redlined into these areas, which they still invested in and made into livable communities. In Washington, D.C. there is Foggy Bottom. In Detroit, Michigan, Black Bottom, and in Richmond, Virginia, Shockoe Bottom, among others. While in some instances these names have remained, the Black communties that once lived there have not.

Davis Williams wrote an essay — The Bottom: The Emergence and Erasure of Black American Urban Landscapes — in Columbia University’s Avery Review that outlines the history of these forgottenvernacular landscapes.” In Detroit, Black Bottom was used for industrial purposes, resulting in a “dirty, heavily polluted landscape.” In the 50s and 60s, the community was raised to make way for a highway as part of “urban renewal efforts.” Today, the area is known as Lafayette Park and is seen as an “exclusive, high-value neighborhood.” Now the site of Mies van der Rohe-designed apartment complexes, the original Black Bottom is a coveted neighborhood. The place was “transformed; the narrative had changed.”

Lafayette Park, Detroit / Wikipedia, Mikerussell, CC BY-SA 3.0

“What could have Black Bottom been if it was left alone — or even included in the rest of the city?” To answer the question, Davis Williams said it’s important to undertake a process of “landscape reconciliation,” which is “not about memorializing but transforming residual impacts and undertaking a healing process.”

For Whitney Barr, ASLA, a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the University of Georgia, Sapelo Island, a state-protected barrier island in McIntosh County, Georgia, is a fascinating Black cultural landscape that offers a way for contemporary Black Americans to heal from the wounds of hundreds of years of enforced labor on the land.

The island, which is 11 miles long by 3 miles wide, has one convenience store, a bar, no doctors, and is only accessible by ferry. Settled by white slave owners and nearly 400 enslaved West Africans, the island’s massive plantations grew sugar cane, cotton, and other crops. From a population high of 600, there are just 45 Gullah-Geechee people left in Hog Hammock, a historically Black community. The Gullah-Geechee are descendants of those enslaved West Africans and decided to stay after Reconstruction.

Residents of Hog Hammock, Sapelo Island, Georgia / photo by Evangelio Gonzalez, courtesy Creative Commons, 2017, via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Barr has been studying the Hog Hammock agricultural landscape, seeking ways to use design to reconnect Black Americans to the soil in a healing way. Referring to Dr. Anneliese Singh’s book, The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Activities to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing, Barr explained how Black Americans can move from conforming to white culture to a sense of “integrative awareness,” which involves steps such as deep immersion in Black culture. By re-educating Black Americans about West African food and unlearning white approaches, they can get to a place where “they no longer think of agriculture as bad.” Regenerative agriculture and cultural regeneration go hand in hand.

Whitney Barr with Amaranth / College of Environment and Design, University of Georgia

In a set of plots on private land (much of Hog Hammock is owned by Georgia Heritage, a state authority), Barr has been working with residents to plant sugarcane, indigo, sugar peas, herbs, and hibiscus, sweet potato, and garlic. Youth participants decide what they want to plant.

During planting and harvesting events, “we give people permission to process — they can work solo or participate in conversations.” Barr and other designers have laid out spaces, created wayfinding systems and “peek and reveal spaces,” along with bioswales for stormwater management. There are educational and play spaces that help participants “re-imagine Black joy.” In addition to re-connecting with their landscape heritage in an affirming way, the goal is for residents to generate revenue and increase self-sufficiency, so as to reduce trips on the ferry for groceries.

Anjelyque Easley, Student ASLA, who is studying for her master’s of landscape architecture degree at the University of Texas at Arlington, has been delving into Black burial sites, which are often disturbed sites or have been built upon. The ones that remain intact are “desolate places” that suffer from “ignorance, lack of respect, and lack of documentation.” Easley’s goal is to investigate these sites, learn the names of the people buried, document the landscapes, and bring them new respect. “There are human beings there, not second class citizens.”

Even in tony Georgetown, Washington, D.C., the black cemetery Mount Zion is in a state of disrepair. The cemetery, which is 3.5 acres, is actually two separate cemeteries — Mount Zion Cemetery and Female Union Band Society Cemetery — and became a predominantly Black burial site starting in the mid-1800s. While the cemetery is adjacent to the predominantly white Oakhill cemetery, which is in pristine condition, Mount Zion is “largely ignored,” with broken tombstones and overgrown vegetation.

Mount Zion cemetery, Georgetown / Wikipedia, AgnosticPreachersKid, CC BY-SA 3.0

In discussing Mount Zion and other cemeteries in Texas, Easley concluded that Black burial sites leave an important legacy for future generations. The way forward is to recognize the error of failing to invest in their restoration and maintenance. “Planners, developers, and designers can reconcile with these places by offering new respect, convening, and memorializing to create places of healing.”

As Davis Williams explained early in the lecture, reconciling with the past can lead to a freer future rooted in equity and equality. “To move forward, we need to create a sustainable future that includes everyone.”

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

Westhampton Park topographical map / Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, via The Roanoke Times

How a University of Richmond Researcher Uncovered the Campus’ Forgotten Connection to Slavery — 12/14/20, The Roanoke Times
“Driskill was sick with the flu, searching for images of Westhampton Park, when she found a significant piece to the puzzle — a 1901 topographical map drawn by the Olmsted firm. To the east of the lake were written the words ‘grave yard.'”

Remembering Carol R. Johnson — 12/14/20, The Cultural Landscape Foundation
“Carol R. Johnson, founder of what became one of the largest woman-owned landscape architecture practices in the United States, died December 11, 2020, in Boothbay Harbor, ME; she was 91. She began her career with small residential commissions, then public housing projects and college campuses, followed by civic and corporate work in the U.S. and abroad.”

MoMa Urged to Drop Philip Johnson’s Name over Architect’s Fascist Past — 12/13/20, The Guardian
“New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is under growing pressure to remove Philip Johnson’s name from its galleries and titles after Harvard addressed the late architect’s legacy at the university, saying his history of racism, fascism and white supremacy had ‘absolutely no place in design.'”

Ultra-Modern Addition Updates a Craftsman-Style House in St. Paul — 12/11/20, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Ji, a landscape architect with Coen + Partners, did take some design cues from her home’s original character.”

‘Arts Organizations Are Back in Business’: NYC Performances Prep for Spring 2021 — 12/08/20, NY Daily News
“Starting March 1, beleaguered artists will be able to stage ticketed concerts, plays, sketches and more on city streets and other open spaces, thanks to a bill set to be passed in the City Council on Thursday.”

Back at It — 12/08/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“James Corner talks second chances, holistic design, and ‘lifting people up’ through planning.”

Best Books of 2020

Black Landscapes Matter / University of Virginia Press

During this unforgettable year, a number of new books were published that renew our hope for racial justice, human and environmental health, and climate action. For those spending time at home over the holidays, now is a great time to explore bold new ideas through books. Whether you are looking for the perfect gift or a meaningful read for yourself, explore THE DIRT’s best books of 2020:

Black Landscapes Matter
University of Virginia Press, 2020

Landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, and writer and educator Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, have co-edited a very personal volume of contributions from Black landscape architecture thought leaders, such as Kofi Boone, FASLA, Austin Allen, ASLA, Louise A. Mozingo, and urban planner Maurice Cox. Rich visual essays of photographs and design renderings are interspersed amid the contributions, which explore the deep yet often unrecognized history of Black American landscapes and make a powerful case for researching, honoring, and preserving these places. Through greater understanding, landscape architects and designers can create landscapes that are more honest about American history, more respectful of diversity and difference, and encourage greater inclusion. As Hood explains, “Black landscape matter because they are renewable. We can uncover, exhume, validate, and celebrate these landscapes through new narratives and stories that choose to return us to origins.” Read an interview with Hood.

The Art of Earth Architecture / Princeton Architectural Press

The Art of Earth Architecture: Past, Present, and Future
Princeton Architectural Press, 2020

This gorgeous 500-page door stopper of a book, which is more than a foot tall, makes the case for using raw earth — not baked or fired earth — to build our homes and communities. Used for thousands of years, across many cultures, raw earth is one of the most sustainable building materials invented. Earth architecture is clearly a passion of former Centre Pompidou curator Jean Dethier, who ably mixes in diverse contributions and finds fascinating cases that span the millennia and continents. Raw earth building isn’t just for ancient kingdoms; a whole chapter on “contemporary creativity” shows the potential of the building technology as a critical climate change solution today. The book is part National Geographic-style photographic odyssey; part architectural call to action.

Alex MacLean Impact / Birkhäuser

Impact: The Effect of Climate Change on Coastlines
Birkhäuser, 2020

Aerial photographer Alex MacLean’s latest book captures our Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities at their most vulnerable. Even in a media environment inundated with images of climate change, MacLean’s photos have the ability to shock. Read the full review.

The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York / University of Minnesota Press

The Invention of Public Space: Designing for Inclusion in Lindsay’s New York
University of Minnesota Press, 2020

Mariana Mogilevich, a historian of architecture and urbanism and editor-in-chief of Urban Omnibus, the online publication of The Architectural League of New York, has written about a moment in history in New York City, during the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay in the mid-1960s through the early 70s, “when designers, government administrators, and residents sought to remake the city in the image of a diverse, free, and democratic society.” Through extensive archival research, site work, interviews, and the analysis of film and photographs, Mogilevich delves into how theories of psychology and inclusion influenced the work of landscape architects Paul Friedberg, FASLA, and Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, as well as the architects of New York City’s Urban Design Group.

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems / Island Press

Leadership for Sustainability: Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems
Island Press, 2020

Written for professionals working in sustainability and environmental security, the new book by authors R. Bruce Hull, David P. Robertson, and Michael Mortimer provides a roadmap of the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene, a leadership toolbox, and a storybook of “wicked leadership” in practice. This practical guide provides clear leadership strategies that support emerging and seasoned planning and design professionals alike. Read the full review.

Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism / Taschen

Lo―TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism
Taschen, 2020

Lo–TEK catalogues indigenous technologies from across the globe, positing that scaling and hybridizing them with conventional technologies can provide a new vocabulary of sustainable innovations in the built environment. Watson, an Australia-born and New York–based architect, activist, academic, and founder of both Julia Watson and A Future Studio, researched and wrote Lo–TEK over six years. While exploring 18 countries, Watson pinpointed the inherent advantage of Lo–TEK design: it is “both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes, such as famine, flood, frost, drought, and disease.” Read the full review.

New Horizons: Eight Perspectives on Chinese Landscape Architecture Today / Birkhäuser

New Horizons: Eight Perspectives on Chinese Landscape Architecture Today
Birkhäuser, 2020

In a compelling survey of eight contemporary Chinese landscape architecture practices, Jutta Kehrer, director at LAC in Hong Kong and former design director at AECOM, shows the incredible breath of creativity across China. The emerging firms are creating striking and sustainable contemporary places rooted in traditional and vernacular styles. In an essay, Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, writes that “these firms put design in service of community building, local economic development, and reinvestment in place, people, and processes.” And Ron Henderson, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, notes that “there is a revived confidence explicit in the work.”

Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities / Island Press

Parks and Recreation System Planning: A New Approach for Creating Sustainable, Resilient Communities
Island Press, 2020

Landscape architect David Barth, ASLA, argues that “the majority of parks and recreation system plans address traditional parks and recreation improvements, rather than community-wide issues.” Barth provides a much-needed contemporary approach, calling for park and recreation systems to address racial and social inequities and climate change and become more interconnected. He also outlines how parks and recreational sites can become “high-performing public spaces.” Together, these approaches can help public parks and recreation departments transcend their silos and better partner with other government agencies and private park conservancies and developers to create park and recreation systems that work better for the entire community.

Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves / Island Press

Planetary Health: Protecting Nature to Protect Ourselves
Island Press, 2020

Dr. Howard Frumkin is the former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Samuel Myers is principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, they have put together a thought-provoking and rich 500-page overview of the emerging field of planetary health. We are given a roadmap for how to undo the damage to the Earth and live in a way that is more respectful of the planet’s limited capacity. The authors convince us to take this path not just for nature’s sake but also for our own future health and well-being. Read the full review.

Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagiste

Transforming Landscapes: Michel Desvigne Paysagiste
Birkhäuser, 2020

The French landscape architect Michel Desvigne isn’t well-known in the U.S. but a new monograph of his firm’s work from the publisher Birkhäuser should help change that. Transforming Landscapes beautifully conveys Desvigne’s simple yet striking parks, plazas, and master plans. There is a sense of clarity in his work that emerges as you look through the book’s many rich color photographs. The book is entirely focused on Desvigne’s public projects, which is where his passion lies. Read the full review.

Buying these books through THE DIRT or ASLA’s online bookstore benefits ASLA educational programs.