Beyond Mow and Blow: New Approaches to Park Maintenance

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Prairie Burn in Manhattan, Kansas / USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

“How can we make maintenance sexier and more fun?”

This was the question moderator Joey Hays, ASLA, posed to the crowd at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, in a session entitled “the disturbing pleasures of maintenance: audacious strategies for public parks,” which sought to address the increasingly-fraught issue of public parks maintenance and inspire creative, aesthetic, and ecological approaches to what can often seem a decidedly-mundane topic.

Tim Marshall, FASLA, was quick to respond to Hayes’ question. “Sexy and fun–those are not two things I’ve ever heard in the same sentence regarding maintenance,” he said to knowing laughs.

Maintenance may not be something that excites designers, clients, or the public, but its implementation–or lack thereof–can make all the difference in the success or failure of a project.

Marshall, who formerly served as deputy administrator and senior vice president of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City, said maintenance has become more problematic on a national level. Many parks and recreation departments have expanded their portfolios of amenities and facilities in recent decades, but operations funding has not kept up.

“We have more things to maintain, and at the same time, resources are going down.”

Recent trends in ecological design have not made things easier. Designs that rely heavily on meadows and other designed plant communities require specialized knowledge to maintain, knowledge often not held by maintenance crews accustomed to the “mow and blow” approach.

“Put in a lawn, you know exactly what to do right away,” he said. “A meadow changes year to year. It’s not a project, it’s a process.”

Sheep were at one time used to maintain the meadow in Central Park / Library of Congress

One of the biggest obstacles facing parks departments is what Marshall called the “silver tsunami,” the looming wave of retiring experienced staff who will take with them institutional knowledge, relationships, and experience.

Loss of funding and staff can lead to deferred maintenance, which inflates capital costs and depresses park use.

According to Marshall, public-private partnerships like the Central Park Conservancy have been key to filling the operational gaps left by budget cuts and staffing shortages. However, those partnerships come with their own challenges.

“There has to be an understanding that we’re in this together,” he said, adding “it probably took ten years before the Central Park Conservancy was firing on four of its six cylinders.”

Tim Netsch of the Metro Nashville Parks Planning Division has experienced these dynamics first hand. “There’s so much happening in Nashville that parallels some those national trends. There is something unsustainable about our current park system.”

Nashville has seen explosive growth in recent decades, which has extended the city’s park system. Since the adoption of the city’s first parks and greenways master plan in 2002, the park system has added approximately 6,500 acres.

“Our park system grew more in this 15 year period than it had in the previous 50 years,” Netsch said. “During that same period of capital budget abundance, our operating budget has stagnated,” leading to fewer maintenance employees per acre and reduced operating hours.

“Our park system has grown, but our organization has not.”

To break out of this cycle, Nashville asked Charlottesville-based Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) to incorporate maintenance needs into the design of two new large public parks currently being planned for East Nashville.

“We wanted to build these plans around maintenance,” Netsch said. “To make it unavoidable to reckon with maintenance.”

For Thomas Woltz, FASLA, that meant diving deep into the sites’ cultural and ecological histories. On the future site of Ravenwood Park, just east of downtown Nashville, Woltz said: “an extraordinary phenomenon here is you have 8,000 years of Native American settlement in a not terribly disturbed site.”

“What if, in the cultural landscape research, you hit upon a regime of maintenance? What if the maintenance design is right there, deep within the soil?”

In the case of Ravenwood Park, NBW has proposed a mixed regime of controlled burns and grazing by cows, maintenance practices that reflect the history of the site and provide valuable ecological disturbance that will maintain broad expanses of open grassland.

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Master Plan for Ravenwood Park, Nashville / Nelson Byrd Woltz

For Woltz, it is here that the “disturbing pleasures”–or pleasures that result from disturbance–reveal themselves. “Part of the disturbing pleasure is the exhilaration of witnessing a fire,” he said, “and the sublime landscape of these post-fire moments when the earth surges with this chartreuse explosion of grasses.”

This aesthetic of disturbance can reframe the conversation around maintenance and even create opportunities to design powerful spaces and experiences.

To illustrate this point, Woltz pivoted to another major public project that NBW has spent many years on: Houston’s Memorial Park.

In their research, NBW found that many Houstonians were unaware of the park’s history and did not know why it was called Memorial Park. The site was used as an army camp in World War I and was the last stop for many soldiers before being shipped to Europe.

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Aerial photo of Camp Logan, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz

NBW’s design calls for a 90 acre Memorial Grove of Loblolly Pines planted in a strict, regimented grid, referring to the character of the military exercises and rows of tents that once defined the site. The heart of NBW’s proposal, however, lies in the grove’s maintenance regime.

“Twenty-five years is the average age of the solider that died in World War I who trained at Camp Logan. Twenty-five years is the age of maturity for loblolly pines in the timber industry,” Woltz explained.

“So, twenty-five years from the planting of the Memorial Groves, imagine one of those regiments–a thousand trees–ceremonially chainsawed down on Memorial Day. The noise, the impact, the violence, the horror of seeing a thousand trees felled at once in a city’s park will be something you will never forget. And you just might feel, in your body, the sense and the power of sacrifice and of loss of life.”

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Rendering of the Memorial Grove at Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz

Woltz said that the timber from the felled trees would then be given to Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing in the Houston area. He envisions Houstonians coming together on Armistice Day to replant the thousand felled trees for another twenty-five year cycle. Every five years, a new group of trees would be felled.

“This is a memorial, in perpetuity, connecting us to the cycles of life, connecting us to the power of life, the beauty of these trees representing these individuals who were felled far, far, too early.”

“As an extreme example, this is a maintenance regime. Maintenance has been used as the very crux of a memorial landscape.”

Controversial WWI Memorial Charts Narrow Path Forward

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Aerial view of the approved conceptual design for the National WWI Memorial at Pershing Park / World War I Centennial Commission

In a circumscribed win for backers of a new national World War I memorial at the site of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) unanimously granted their support to the latest conceptual design for the memorial at their July 19 meeting.

The revised proposal was presented by David Rubin, ASLA, principal of Land Collective, who joined the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) design team in 2017. Other members of the team include architect Joe Weishaar, GWWO, and sculptor Sabin Howard.

The project has generated controversy due to its location at Pershing Park, which was designed by ASLA medal recipient M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA. The park, which opened in 1981, has fallen into disrepair in recent years as maintenance funds have been cut.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and others have argued the park has historic value and should be rehabilitated as part of any memorial construction, arguing that the park can accommodate new memorial elements without fundamentally altering Friedberg’s original design. The National Park Service (NPS), which operates the park, determined in 2016 the park was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, calling it “an exceptional example of a landscape design of the modern period.”

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Pershing Park (looking south) / Image courtesy of M. Paul Friedberg & Partners, via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Backers of the new memorial have pointed to their Congressional mandate, which specifically designates Pershing Park as the site for a national WWI memorial, and have argued that preservation concerns should not take priority over an act of Congress. They have also emphasized that WWI is the only major conflict whose veterans are not memorialized in the nation’s capital.

The approved design concept retains a previously-proposed sculptural wall on the western edge of the park as the memorial’s signature element. The wall would be freestanding and placed in the western end of the park’s original pool, which is currently inoperable. The wall would incorporate cascading water features, referring to the original design’s waterfall at the western edge of the pool.

The proposal also calls for a paved viewing platform to be constructed in the center of the existing pool area, which Rubin said could also be used for events and commemorations. In the concept presented to CFA, the platform would substantially reduce the size and alter the shape of the original pool.

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Perspective view of the proposed viewing platform / World War I Centennial Commission

In granting their support, CFA asked the design team to continue to refine elements of design, including the sculptural wall, the function of the site of an existing unused kiosk on the northeast corner of the site, and the layout of the proposed viewing platform.

Overall, however, CFA was persuaded by the WWICC proposal. “For the first time, the client and designers have talked about the memorial and the park as a whole and understand that the impact of the sculptural wall will be enriched by the spatial sequence through the park,” said CFA vice chairman Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA.

The initial design for the memorial was selected in 2015 by competition. The winning proposal, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” was submitted by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard. It called for replacing Pershing Park’s sunken pool with a flat lawn enclosed on three sides by bronze walls engraved with memorial text and figurative sculptures in bas relief.

In selecting the winning proposal, the jury described it as “elegant and absolute,” praising its simplicity.

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The original proposal by Joe Weishaar would have replaced the central pool with a turf panel, enclosed on three sides by bronze walls / World War I Centennial Commission

The competition jury originally included Laurie Olin, FASLA. However, Olin resigned from the jury before the competition began after learning that Pershing Park could be threatened. Olin told Politico earlier this year that he does not support the project.

The WWICC had hoped the new park would be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice this coming November. However, approvals for the design have proven difficult to secure because of concerns over the impact on Pershing Park.

In his remarks at the July meeting, TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, opposed the option presented by the WWICC design team and instead urged CFA to support an alternative that would place sculptural elements “in-the-round” at the current site of the unused kiosk. That proposal was also supported by Oehme van Sweden, who revised the planting plan for the site with Freidberg in the 1980s, and former ASLA president Darwina Neal, FASLA.

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Perspective view of the “in-the-round” alternative favored by The Cultural Landscape Foundation / World War I Centennial Commission

Neal argued in a written statement that “such a ‘sculpture in the round’ in the kiosk location could seamlessly be added to the existing park.”

However, CFA rejected this alternative in favor of the memorial design team’s preferred configuration, which they felt struck an appropriate balance between Friedberg’s original design and the new memorial elements. “I’m convinced that the wall will not destroy the integrity of this landscape, but in fact will reinterpret it,” said Meyer.

CFA commissioner Edward Dunson agreed: “This is still Friedberg’s space as far as I’m concerned; it just has a different interpretation, and I feel comfort in that.”

“I don’t believe that strict—emphasis on strict—preservation of the original design is more important than the congressional decision to designate the entirety of Pershing Park as a memorial,” said Alex Krieger, a CFA commissioner. “I’m not persuaded that everything about the original design has to be preserved, and therefore the memorial needs to take second standing. I think they must take equivalent standing.”

In an email, Rubin said that “with the approval of a preferred option by the CFA, we have met a significant milestone in the realization of a comprehensive design for the memorial,” but “there are still many design exercises moving forward.”

The WWICC design team will need to resolve the outstanding issues identified by CFA and present a more detailed proposal as well as clear a revised design with other regulatory agencies, including the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) al, before they can begin construction.

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

The Gateway Arch Park, St. Louis / Gateway Arch Park Foundation

Flock of Plastic Flamingos in Buffalo Parks Sets World Record The Buffalo News, 6/21/18
It started as an inside joke that Stephanie Crockatt thought only she and her colleagues in the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy would understand.

Here’s D.C.’s Memorial For Native American Veterans CityLab, 6/26/18
“Unlike other war memorials in D.C., the National Native American Veterans Memorial does not highlight a specific conflict, but rather an entire people.”

Central Park Love SongThe New York Times, 6/28/18
“Even though Central Park, like the rest of Manhattan, is largely man-made, not natural, it is a place to experience in person, not secondhand through images, regardless of their authenticity, nor through narratives, no matter how illustrative.”

Gateway to What? Curbed, 6/28/18
“The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Gateway Arch, a 630-foot-tall catenary curve—designed by Eero Saarinen and clad in stainless steel—stands on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri. But really, it stands everywhere in St. Louis.”

Why Does it Take So Long for Memorials to Be Built in Washington? – The Washington Post, 6/29/18
It took more than three years for the leaders behind a proposed Desert Storm memorial to secure the plot of federal land they want to build their project.”

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

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A view of the Obama Presidential Center campus shows a proposed promenade along the Lagoon at the east side of the campus with the Museum Building and the Museum of Science Industry beyond. / Obama Foundation

The Fraught Future of Monuments Co.Design, 1/2/18
“Let’s get this out of the way: Public space is, and always has been, political. Public spaces are the sites of protest–the places we exercise democracy.”

Dallas Is Finally Talking About Bicycles The Dallas Morning News, 1/2/18
“The other day, I once again found myself discussing dockless bike share. Someone said the only thing anyone in Dallas is talking about is bikes.”

Atlanta’s Piedmont Park Slated for $100 Million Expansion The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/2/18
“Late last month, Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the city will kick in $20 million to expand Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, which sit just east of the city’s Ansely Park neighborhood.”

Top Trends in Parks and Recreation for 2018National Recreation and Parks Association Blog, 1/8/18
“Several years ago, what started as a lighthearted look at new, interesting and even controversial trends in the field of parks and recreation for the coming year, has now become an annual New Year tradition.”

Can Oman Build a Better Planned City?CityLab, 1/10/18
“The petro-states of the Persian Gulf do not lack for outlandish and ambitious urban projects: See the man-made islands of Dubai, a supertall curved skyscraper in Kuwait, or the enormous clock tower in Mecca that’s the size of six Big Bens.”

An Obama Tower in an Olmsted Park? Yes, But Design Still Needs RefinementThe Chicago Tribune, 1/13/18
“During his White House years, Barack Obama did not shy away from big, provocative political issues. The aesthetic instincts of the former president, who once wanted to be an architect, are proving no different.”

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

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Better Block event on Washington Avenue in Houston / Asakura Robinson

Finding Light Through the Concrete of Canada’s Holocaust Monument – ­CityLab, 12/6/17
“In 2007, Laura Grosman, an 18-year-old university student in Ottawa learned that Canada was the only Allied nation that didn’t have a monument to victims of the Holocaust.”

A Brand New Boston, Even Whiter Than the OldThe Boston Globe, 12/11/17
“Imagine a fresh start — a chance for Boston to build a new urban neighborhood of the future, untouched by the bigotry of the past.”

“Splash Pad Urbanism” and 2017’s Other Notable Developments in Landscape Architecture The Huffington Post, 12/11/17
“This was a breakout year for landscape architecture, as well as a period of great trial. The innovative melding of design and ecology at SCAPE earned firm founder Kate Orff a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant, a first for a landscape architect.”

A New Leader for Central ParkThe New York Times, 12/12/17
“Elizabeth W. Smith grew up in Rye, N.Y., about an hour north of Manhattan, and said her earliest memory of Central Park was from when she moved to the Upper East Side after college.”

Changing Houston, One Little Fix a Time The Houston Chronicle, 12/12/17
“Using colored duct tape, spray chalk and stencils, we were done in 10 minutes. The results were just as immediate: Cars stopped well in advance of this modified intersection, and pedestrians walked with new confidence.”

Why Are We Wrecking Our Best Modernist Landscapes? The Architect’s Newspaper, 12/14/17
“If you’ve seen the movie Columbus, you’ll remember, among all the nerdy dialogue about modernist bank branches and James Polshek’s buildings, that scene where the two protagonists passionately discuss the Dan Kiley landscape outside the Eero Saarinen–designed Miller House.”

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

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Tech Deck in Mountain View, California / Bionic

Young Landscape Architect Works to Shape the Future San Diego Downtown News, 11/3/17
“Growing up in Tempe, Arizona, Magnusson was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, and had opportunities to explore several of his commercial, institutional and residential projects.”

Michael Maltzan Architecture to Expand ArtCenter College of Design The Architect’s Newspaper, 11/3/17
“ArtCenter College of Design has unveiled renderings of a new, two-phase master plan created by Michael Maltzan Architecture that aims to reposition the college as an expansive, urban campus connected by pedestrianized open spaces, new housing, and student amenities.”

Lines Are Drawn Over Design for a National World War I MemorialThe New York Times, 11/8/17
“When it was built in 1981 as part of an architectural revival of Pennsylvania Avenue, Pershing Park was a downtown oasis of tree line and water fountain steps from the White House. In the years since, the park has fallen into disrepair and has become a haven for homeless people and pigeons.”

It’s All About the Details for Landscape Architect Kathryn Gustafson The Vancouver Sun, 11/10/17
“This year the Robson Square lecture hall was packed to hear renowned American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, and she did not disappoint.”

Bionic Forges Lush Landscapes and Public Spaces in the Dense Bay Area Curbed, 11/15/17
“Wilson is changing the shape and texture of some of California’s most beloved landscapes and outdoor public areas in ways that are surprising, unconventional, and delightful.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 16 – 31)

WATG’s Green Block Proposal / WATG

For the First Time, MacArthur Foundation Has Given ‘Genius’ Award to a Landscape ArchitectThe Washington Post, 10/18/17
“The New York landscape architect Kate Orff, 45, grew up in Crofton, Md., a place she remembers as the type of suburban community built around the automobile and molded on the tenacious idea that the lifeblood of modern settlement is oil.”

Cleanup Begins in NYC’s Most Polluted Waterway Next City, 10/18/17
“Now, a long-anticipated cleanup has finally begun. Preliminary dredging began the first week of October, and the full project is anticipated to cost around $500 million, the Architect’s Newspaper reports.”

Greenspace Takes Over London with WATG’s ‘Green Block’ Proposal Arch Daily, 10/25/17
“London Mayor Sadiq Khan proposed the challenge — how does London become a designated National Park City– and WATG, London-based landscape team, headed by Demet Karaoglu, accepted the challenge.”

Memorializing Tragedy in an Era of Constant Mass AssaultsCityLab, 10/24/17
“July 22, 2011, still stands as the bloodiest day in Norway’s history since World War II. Twin attacks that day, first a bomb in Oslo and then, two hours later, a gun massacre on the island of Utøya, claimed 77 lives.”

Instead of Fighting Sea Level Rise, This Town Is Embracing ItSlate, 10/27/17
“Five years after Hurricane Sandy, Staten Island’s Tottenville community is trying something different.”

Lawrence Halprin’s L.A. Projects Star in Landscape Architecture Symposium This Weekend Architect’s Newspaper, 10/30/17
“The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) will be holding a day-long symposium on November 4 at the Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles in conjunction with the opening of The Landscape Architecture of Lawrence Halprin, a photographic exhibition based on Halprin’s body of work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Controversial Eisenhower Memorial Clears Final Hurdle

Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial / Eisenhower Memorial

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

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

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

Normandy scene on Tapestry / Frank Gehry Partners

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

Eisenhower Memorial column / Frank Gehry Partners

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

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

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

Eisenhower Memorial / Frank Gehry Partners

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Memorials Can Be Designed to Evolve

Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia / Wikipedia

Confederate monuments and other long-tolerated symbols of racism are beginning to be expelled from America’s civic landscapes. As we engage in these acts of reconciliation and removal, it is worth a significant pause to consider why we seem to habitually design memorial landscapes for indelible permanence in the first place?

A memorial – whether a monument or otherwise — is simply a tangible container for memory through time. We benefit from having designated places to recall memory and emotion – whether grief, pain, fear, anger, love, respect, reverence, gratitude, awe, pride, or joy.

Part of the complexity of being human means that it is possible to feel multiple emotions simultaneously, and also that our feelings and memories are dynamic and can change over time. New knowledge and experience, and a genuine willingness to face difficult truths can significantly alter and expand our perception.

As such, might there be virtue in designing certain memorial landscapes to allow for a degree of fluidity and change?

Moving forward, American monuments and memorial landscapes in the 21st century may better be able to embody shared cultural values; reflect an inclusive and emotionally-intelligent view of history; mirror and support dynamic emotional processes; aid healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation; honor diversity, accept death, and truly affirm life if they are designed to consider the virtues and qualities of transience, adaptability, and vitality.

Transience

Despite the air of permanence many of these historic icons convey, it is laudable that several local governments and institutions have acted boldly to remove Confederate statues. A monument that marks an important time in history, but that simultaneously is widely perceived to be symbolic of racism, may best be retired or kept in a museum, rather than in the heart of a public square or civic space.

A 2017 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 1,500 Confederate symbols can be found in public spaces across the country – they are monuments as well as named roads, municipalities, parks, institutions, and public works. The “undoing” of this landscape legacy is more easily wrought for a small statue than it is for an immense earthwork like Stone Mountain in Georgia, but no memorial is immune to the laws of impermanence.

As the voices of the oppressed are increasingly heard, and intolerance of hatred leads to action, our public and private landscapes should be able to adapt as we literally rewrite history with greater honesty, compassion, inclusion, integrity, maturity, apology, and courage.

It is time that we finally own the stories of extreme colonial and racist violence that undeniably define the conquest and development of the United States as a country. Realizing the long overdue expiration date of a monument whose presence detracts from equality should cause us to consider that not everything we erect in stone, bronze, and steel should last forever.

In 2015, three statues representing the Spanish missionary Junipero Serra were vandalized in my home community of Monterey County, California. Like Robert E. Lee, Serra practiced and promoted slavery. He and his missionaries displaced thousands of Esselen, Ohlone, Costanoan and other native people from what had been their homeland for millennia. Colonial violence and oppression included rape, slavery, abuse, isolation, exposure to disease, and deliberate suppression of language and culture.

The beheading of a statue at the Lower Presidio in Monterey occurred in the same year Serra was canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church. While some lamented the defamation of the city’s co-founder, and the damage to this 1891 relic of post-contact California history, it is clear that these statues, similar to those of Lee, symbolize racism. Even more insultingly, they morally validate an individual who contributed to the near extinction of the Esselen people and many other tribes that were severely oppressed under missionization.

Headless Junipero Serra statue / US Franciscans

Even if one or more of our local Serra statues were removed or relocated, the Spanish names prevalent here and throughout California convey a daunting dominance, rendering the first names given to our local geography largely forgotten, and the living community of the Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen Nation, who have yet to gain federal recognition, nearly invisible.

Landscape is not always a mirror of the diversity of cultures that inhabit it. As we look closely at what our own cities and neighborhoods fail to reflect, it is worth considering what kind of reconciliation can be achieved simply through acts of deconstruction and renaming.

Adaptability

While grief may leave a permanent scar, and render permanent change within an individual or a community, grief is also a dynamic and ongoing process. How can a memorial wholly acknowledge the severity of trauma and loss, while inspiring hope for the recovery of the broken-hearted? How can we remarry simple civic ritual to our most important public spaces?

In the case of the National September 11 Memorial, for example, beautifully and sensitively designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, FASLA, what would it mean to the people of New York City (and to the country and even the world as a whole) if one of the two “voids” that symbolize loss in the footprints of the towers were to someday be partially filled? What might it mean to extend the swamp white oak grove to a lower level – to fill the voids with life, once the cascading water has washed away the rawness of grief? What if there were an opportunity for individuals to ritually contribute to this physical transformation – one shovel-full of soil at a time? What kind of deeper healing and forgiveness might be able to occur if there were a collective gesture made to physically mirror a transformation beyond the initial, radical enormity of grief?

National September 11 Memorial / PWP Landscape Architecture

What do we want this memorial to reflect about our culture 100, 500 or 1,000 years into the future, whether it is still intact, or an archaeological relic. Relentless and permanent grief? Resilience? Forgiveness?

Vitality

Should memorials be hard or soft? Inanimate or living? The concept of a memorial garden or grove honors life with vitality itself. Cemeteries that encourage tree planting instead of headstones are becoming increasingly common, as are natural burials in which the body is allowed to decompose underground, feeding the biotic community in the soil, versus being chemically embalmed and preserved in an impenetrable coffin.

The 9-11 Memorial hosts a Survivor Tree Seedling program, in which seedlings from a Callery pear tree that survived the attack are gifted to communities that have endured tragedy. This achieves the highest good that a memorial possibility can – breeding compassion in the present moment, and in the form of a living and life-giving tree.

September 11 survivor tree / Smithsonian

A memorial need not be bound to one particular place – and therefore may be more widely accessible.

As my mother was a lover of birds, I have chosen to remember her through them. Hawks, owls, wrens, robins, cranes, indigo buntings, cormorants, warblers, finches, sparrows, crows. Each bird reminds me of something different about her, each inspires a unique affection, and each encounter uplifts.

Californian condor / Jessica Neafsey

In choosing to remember her this way, the mountain valley that descends from my east-facing deck, over which countless birds soar, has become an arena for reflection and remembrance of her. The sky itself has become a bridge to the unconditional love I still feel with her. A memorial need not be made of or bound to the Earth.

In the words of Celtic poet and author John O’Donohue, “not all woundedness succeeds in finding its way through to beauty of form. Where woundedness can be refined into beauty, a wonderful transfiguration takes place.”

I hope the unrest we are living through leads to nothing less than a renaissance of American memory, which will see our landscapes adapt to reflect unprecedented American wisdom, compassion, inclusion, and grace – until it’s time to revisit our storytelling, once again.

This guest post is by Jessica Neafsey, ASLA, founder of Jay Blue Design in Carmel, California.