Beyond Complete Streets

MyFigueroa / Los Angeles Downtown News
MyFigueroa / Los Angeles Downtown News

We’ve all heard about complete streets — streets that provide access to everyone, with ample space for pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, and buses. But, at GreenBuild in Los Angeles, a group of landscape architects argued they are really just the bare minimum. Streets can become public spaces, taking on park-like qualities. In our increasingly dense urban world, streets can be redesigned to provide environmental benefits and create a sense of community.

Jennifer Packer, ASLA, associate principal at Melendrez, a Los Angeles-based landscape architecture firm, sees great opportunities in Los Angeles county’s 20,000 kilometers of roadways, the vast majority of which are neither complete or green. She pointed to one example showing the way forward: the $20-million MyFigueroa (MyFig) project, which re-envisions a major corridor through downtown Los Angeles. There, a 4-mile stretch is being redeveloped to include separate bus platforms and shelters, bike lanes and racks, more accessible crosswalks and clearer signage, and lots of greenery. It’s a key first step in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative.

Monrovia, a foothill community in Los Angeles, just got a new transit village for the new station along the new metro line that heads east from downtown out to Santa Monica. There, AHBE Landscape Architects created a “complete street neighborhood,” multiplying the benefits, said Evan Mather, ASLA, principal at AHBE. A multi-modal transit center now connects bikes, cars, and pedestrians to the rail. Plants native to the foothill eco-tone were re-established and set within stormwater management systems. Around the station, there’s a new mile-long loop trail dotted with bioswales and planters. The new streets help further define a new downtown Monrovia.

Monrovia transit village / AHBE Landscape Architects
Monrovia transit village / AHBE Landscape Architects

For Nate Cormier, ASLA, director of landscape architecture at AECOM downtown L.A. Studio, Bell Street Park in Seattle is a prime example of what it means to go beyond complete streets: the street as a park. MIG|SvR and Hewitt designed a 4-block-long “woonerf,” which is Dutch for a street that has no curbs and purposefully creates an ambiguous zone where cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists mix. Due to this constant intermingling, everyone is more vigilant, so the street actually becomes safer. “Everyone is negotiating the street; jay walking is the norm.” Textured concrete helps send the message this isn’t a speedway for cars passing through. Trees shade small parklets with cafe tables that “act like a front porch.”

Bell Street Park / NACTO
Bell Street Park / NACTO

In high-density, expensive environments like Seattle, where cities can’t afford to buy up properties to create parks, Bell Street Park may offer a model. The community made the street-park happen by tapping the parks department’s “levy opportunities,” but, through a memorandum of understanding, the city’s department of transportation maintains some aspects of it.

How to Measure the Benefits of a Landscape

Uptown Normal Circle and Streetscape / Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects
Uptown Normal Circle and Streetscape / Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

“We can’t achieve sustainability without considering the landscape. Performance happens there,” argued Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, president of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) at GreenBuild in Los Angeles. By performance, Deutsch means just that — achieving concrete, measurable goals through sustainable and resilient landscape design: capturing stormwater, raising property prices, reducing the urban heat island effect, or improving biodiversity.

Deutsch complained that too many landscape architects still offer a laundry list of sustainable features when they discuss their work instead of focusing on real benefits. “We need to move to talk of benefits. For example, we can say a landscape captures this percent of stormwater, sequesters these many pounds of carbon, or saved thousands in energy use.”

To achieve performance and then collect these kinds of numbers, more landscape architects need to “integrate measurable performance metrics into the front end of the design process.”

To promote this approach, the LAF has built up the robust Landscape Performance Series, which includes a fast fact library, with data pulled from various credible journals; a set of benefits calculators; and, lastly, an inventory of over 100 case studies, which offer comparative before and after images, benefits data, and, to be transparent, information on how that data was collected and measured. “We also include information on lessons learned — what didn’t work.”

Deutsch and her team spend upwards of six months with landscape architecture firms and clients to put together a case study. Developing metrics and collecting and synthesizing data is a time-consuming process. “Choosing the right metric is important.” Deutsch called for using “defensible metrics, not necessarily peer-reviewed or published.”

The case studies offer a range of environmental, social, and often economic benefits. For example, the client and design team for Uptown Normal’s Circle and Streetscape in Normal, Illinois, a highly successful new town square and traffic circle, found that “104 new trees planted on site sequester 10,790 pounds of carbon.” And also, they found that the new landscape “increased property values in the Uptown tax increment financing district by $1.5 million (or 9%) from 2009 to 2010, a 31 percent increase from 2004.”

In another case study, the client and design team for the General Service Administration (GSA)’s new Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. found the landscape’s set of terraced green roofs “retains up to 424,000 gallons of rainwater, which is equal to the 95th percentile storm event.” The site’s new social spaces are being used: “336 distinct individuals observed using the courtyard over a 6-hour period.”

But she admitted some of the data is preliminary at best. And it’s easy to conflate causation with correlation. For example, one could say that a new park reduced neighborhood crime by 50 percent if one looked at crime logs before the park was created and then after the park launched and found crime went down 50 percent. But that’s leaving out many other potential causal factors that perhaps weren’t well studied. The park could have come with additional security guards, or the police could have increased their patrols in the area during the construction process, or the buildings around the park could have been redeveloped as pricey condos. Deutsch said “misusing data is possible. But we have to start somewhere. And it’s important to always cite the specific context of the data,” rather than generalizing it.

In the coming decades, Deutsch thinks even better data will come. She sees every landscape architecture degree program teaching landscape performance as part of an integrated design process, and performance calculations included in licensing exams. “I see this approach integrated into practice and the standard procedure.”

To make the case study development process easier, LAF will release a guidebook in 2017.

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

A rendering of an overhead view of San Jose’s St. James Park as re-imagined by CMG Landscape Architecture / Courtesy City of San Jose

Land Bridge Could Transform a Section of I-94 in St. PaulThe Star Tribune, 10/8/16
“A land bridge over Hiawatha Avenue includes Longfellow Gardens. The idea is not a new one, but it is catching on among highway planners.”

The Key to Creating Sydney’s Friendliest Streets Is to Add PlantsDomain, 10/11/16
“As Sydney’s population grows with expectations it will reach 6.25 million in the next 20 years, one added side effect is the increased anonymity that comes with big-city living.”

Gardens by France’s Most Revered Landscape DesignerThe New York Times, 10/12/16
“Gardens are ‘an expression of faith’ and ‘the embodiment of hope,’ wrote the revered English landscape architect Russell Page in his memoir, The Education of a Gardener, in 1962.”

How to Remake San Jose’s St. James Park The Mercury News, 10/12/16
“San Jose will host one of the more fascinating design competitions in its history: The ambitious goal is to try to remake downtown’s most gaping urban sore, St. James Park.”

New York’s Biggest Ever Green Wall Flies the Flag for Eco-Friendly CitiesThe Huffington Post, 10/13/16
“Recent reports that global carbon dioxide levels have hit an all-time high have also reinforced the need for action, and the quest for sustainability is more pressing than ever.”

First SITES v2 Certified Landscapes Create Real Impact

University of Texas at El Paso / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
University of Texas at El Paso / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects

Certifying your landscape project with the Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®)* can seem like an expensive, onerous process. So why bother? For Jamie Statter, vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), SITES gives landscape architects the “opportunity to do it right” and have an impact in the fight against climate change. In a session at GreenBuild in Los Angeles, she and two SITES consultants working with landscape architects on the first SITES v2 certified projects explained why it’s worth the extra effort.

In the face of sprawl, which is helping to speed climate change, “we must better value land as a resource. Sprawl is not about buildings; it’s about the landscape,” argued Statter. In too many places, sprawl happens because “land and water resources are undervalued.” With SITES, she said, “we can value the elements of the landscape that provide benefits that haven’t been monetized.” Through incorporating an ecosystem services-based approach, land owners can save crucial natural resources, reduce carbon emissions, and even make money.

Under SITES, landscape architects and designers can create broader impact through a range of projects: playgrounds, parks, university campuses, water reclamation projects, transportation systems, military facilities, and others. The site just must be a minimum of 2,000 square feet and must be new construction or a major renovation. The rating system tops out at 200 points, but it only takes 135 to reach platinum. SITES enables many kinds of approaches that fit local climates.

With the recent launch of SITES Approved Professional (AP), landscape architects now have “the chance to get ahead and further differentiate themselves,” she added.

The First SITES v2 Certified Project: The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)

Heather Venhaus, an environmental designer and author of Designing the Sustainable Site: Integrated Design Strategies for Small-Scale Sites and Residential Landscapes, was a consultant on the campus redesign project led by Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, at Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, which was the first SITES v2 certified project, achieving a Silver rating. As Venhaus explained, UTEP is among the top rated campuses for upward mobility, meaning many of its students are the first among their families to attend university, so this project is also about social equity.

For the university’s centennial celebration, they revamped their 11-acre, greyfield campus covered in parking lots, spending some $14 million to transform it into a landscape that not only reflects the beauty of the native Chihuahuan desert ecosystem, but also rebuilds the ancient arroyos (rivers) that were once covered over by parking lots. Due to all that asphalt, the campus had major flooding problems. After those arroyos were restored, the water collected and infiltrated through the campus, managing water from up to a 95th percentile storm event. Any excess now flows out to the Rio Grande River instead of inundating the campus.

University of Texas at El Paso arroyos / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
University of Texas at El Paso arroyos / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects

Before, the campus was filled with parking lots; now, it has outdoor seating for 1,800. “Spaces for mental respite went up 64 percent.” At night, many of these social spaces have gas fire pits, so students can hold events outside under the starry desert sky. “The campus now helps students’ cognitive abilities, creating spaces for healing nature.”

University of Texas at El Paso / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
University of Texas at El Paso / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects

The transformation led to a 61 percent reduction in water use, with a 60 percent increase in vegetation, and a 98 percent increase in the native plant palette. Some 90 percent of demolition materials were diverted from the landfill and recycled on site. Venhaus said, “let no one tell you it’s hard to recycle asphalt. It’s the easiest thing to do.”

According to Venhaus, they lost points with SITES because they weren’t able to incorporate much recycled local materials. “We just couldn’t get recycled content, because the local market in El Paso didn’t have it.”

But the process was ultimately worth it, and the costs were relatively low. She said it’s possible to “use SITES and stay within budget if you start with the rating system from the beginning, using the pre-design assessment. You may have spend more on materials and documentation, but it’s typically less than 3 percent of the overall budget. About 1-3 percent.”

In an email, Ten Eyck wrote: “We are glad that we mentioned going after the certification at the beginning of the project to Diana Natalicio, the president of UTEP.  She was all for it and gave us the back up for pursuing the certification, so we were able to incorporate the SITES strategies from the beginning of the design process. We learned that it can be difficult in remote areas, such as El Paso, to meet all of the criteria, because it is so far away from many manufacturers. The campus is thrilled to have received the certification, and the project is helping to convey to the El Paso region and beyond the importance of connecting people with each other and the beauty of their unique desert regions, away from cars. Campuses of the southwest do not have to copy British or ivy league approaches. Instead, we can celebrate the beauty of the people and the places of the southwest in our own special way.”

The Second SITES v2 Certified Project: Chicago Navy Pier

Bryan Astheimer, an architect and sustainability consultant at Re:Vision Architecture, worked with James Corner Field Operations to achieve SITES Gold certification for the transformation of the Chicago Navy Pier. For its bicentennial the Chicago Navy Pier put out an international design competition to reimagine the pier landscape, which Corner’s firm won.

The pier is the only one of the five Chicago architect and planner David Burnham envisioned as part of the 1919 comprehensive plan for Chicago to actually have been built. For decades it was used by the Navy, and then, in 1995 it was revamped as a “festival pier,” with a convention center, children’s museum, Shakespeare theater, restaurants, and amusement park. For decades, it has been the “number-one tourist destination in the Midwest,” Astheimer said. But the city found that the pier had begun to look “tired, not contemporary.” For many Chicagoans, it’s really a place only for tourists.

The first phase of the pierscape project, some 9 acres, redesigned the entry — the Polk Brothers Park and Headhouse Plaza — and the south dock, the long spine that connects the various rooms of the pier. Field Operations more fully integrated the entry plaza into existing transit systems, adding bike racks, bike share stations.

Chicago Navy Pier entry plaza / Sahar Coston-Hardy
Chicago Navy Pier entry plaza / Sahar Coston-Hardy

The spine itself is a marvel of landscape engineering. Before, stormwater would simply run right off into Lake Michigan. Now, expansive tree tanks cut right into the pier with giant saws are large enough so they can store any excess water that falls on the pier. “Water is stored in the tanks where it’s used to irrigate the landscape. Any excess is filtered and then discharged.”

Chicago Navy Pier / Sahar Coston-Hardy
Chicago Navy Pier / Sahar Coston-Hardy

The number-one cost item on the project were the thousands and thousands of herringbone-patterned pavers needed to cover the pier. “We ended up custom specifying a paver with UniLock, but they couldn’t meet the SITES specification for 40 percent recycled content. They ended up creating a paver with 30 percent copper slag. It’s now on their website as part of their eco product line.” What began as a limitation ultimately resulted in market transformation.

Chicago Navy Pier / Sahar Coston-Hardy
Chicago Navy Pier / Sahar Coston-Hardy

Astheimer said “SITES makes you think through the site before you begin design. It forces you to use a quantifiable framework that creates learning opportunities” for all the designers and contractors involved. All the challenges that came out of this new process “were all opportunities for learning. Challenges create growth and ultimately value.” He believes that “SITES will drive the industry to become more sustainable and transparent.”

Sarah Weidner Astheimer, ASLA, principal, James Corner Field Operations, wrote in: “We are excited to celebrate the gold SITES certification of Navy Pier’s South Dock, the first phase in its complete renovation. SITES informed much of our design process, from access and circulation studies to plant and material specifications. It was an important tool that kept our client, our contractor, and design team accountable to a high standard of best practices and resulted in an unprecedented project—the transformation of Chicago’s Navy Pier into an authentic and green destination reflective of the city’s identity.”

*SITES was developed through a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.

Bjarke Ingels Wants Cities to Embrace Resilience

“The Big U is the love child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” said Bjarke Ingels, founder of the multidisciplinary design firm BIG, to huge laughs at GreenBuild‘s finale in Los Angeles. “It’s both a holistic, contiguous project” that Moses, the master of top-down planning, would appreciate, and the result of lots of local community input, which Jacobs, the advocate for bottom-up, small-scale planning, would approve of.

Ingels was speaking of his vision for a system of green berms and parks that will protect lower Manhattan from the next Hurricane Sandy, swinging from West 54th street south to The Battery and up to East 40th Street.

The Big U was one of the major winners of the Rebuild by Design competition, which was organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Rockefeller Foundation, receiving some $335 million. (For their part in the project, Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners received a 2016 ASLA Professional Analysis and Planning Award).

In a fantastic, hybrid video and animation (see above), Ingels showed how the project will make New York City much safer while also creating more green public space. The project, which will break ground in 2017 with the eastern portion, is expected to save lower Manhattan from some $3 billion in damages from the next super storm.

Ingels believes that “resilient infrastructure is not a sea wall; it’s premeditated social and environmental infrastructure.” In keeping with his argument that designers must emphasize fun while surreptitiously improving sustainability and resilience, “the Big U will make lower Manhattan more accessible and enjoyable.”

For Ingels, it’s a no brainer: more cities need to “embrace resilience as a driver of design.”

The Road to Recovery May Be Green

The Green Road / Jared Green
The Green Road / Jared Green

Can spending time in nature help heal veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury? As suicides from PTSD sufferers only increase, the Institute for Integrative Health (TIIH) seeks out answers to this important question through their new Green Road project, which just opened at the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, home of Walter Reed Military Medical Center, in Maryland.

In the middle of the vast medical and university campus, the Green Road takes patients, nurses, and staff down a zig-zaging path to a healing woodland garden, a beautiful 2-acre valley, which used to be a golf course, but now feels wild. The restored forest and stream are at the heart of the experience.

Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream / Jared Green
Restored stream bank / Jared Green

And these restored places are the source of the vista seen from two new, open-air cedar and steel pavilions.

Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green
Pavilion / Jared Green

The landscape was designed and built by a team led by CDM Smith, including landscape architect Jack Sullivan, FASLA, and his students at the University of Maryland.

The idea for the project came from retired U.S. Navy neurologist Frederick Foote, M.D., now a scholar at TIIH. His vision was to bring back an ancient idea: using nature to heal. As Foote explained, four different teams of scientists — from the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Tucson; Benson-Henry Institute of the Massachusetts General Hospital; Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; and National Institute of Health Clinical Center, Pain, and Palliative Care Services — will undertake in-depth studies in the Green Road to “isolate where nature has the most effect.” Some $1.1 million in research will be conducted, all made by possible by the smart and impactful TKF Foundation, which provided some $1.1 million towards the $3.2 million project.

Walking down the path, one of the first things visitors notice are the massive logs strewn through the garden. At first, I thought their intention was ecological: to regenerate the soil and create habitat for small creatures. But, as Foote explained, the dead trees are also symbols of fallen soldiers. Often, soldiers experience PTSD because they have lost a close friend in battle. The logs are opportunities for those suffering with PTSD to remember those they’ve lost in a more gentle, natural way and connect death with the positive cycle of regeneration.

Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green
Fallen trees / Jared Green

Throughout, the garden brings in elements that veterans, both with PTSD and without, identified were important to them. As Sullivan explained at the opening ceremony, design charrettes were conducted with 30 veterans to figure out how the natural beauty of the stream and forest could be enhanced to create a healing effect. “They wanted both a solitary place where they could get away and find solace nature, and a special place to meet others to commemorate those who had fallen, a place to get together with family and comrades.”

Stone Council Circle / Jared Green
Stone Council Circle / Jared Green

The landscape restoration was extensive. Invasive plants were removed and 58 new trees were planted, including river birch, pin oaks, and magnolias. Summersweet shrubs, which will bloom in summer, were planted in abundance. Still, the restored stream, done by Angler Environmental, is perhaps the major attraction. One bank was stabilized, trees were cut back, and the other eroding bank will be restored next.

Foote explained that “the Green Road features stone, water, trees, and animals. Through design, they are paired in new ways. We believe these paired natural systems can help heal PTSD.”

Stone fountain / Jared Green
Stone fountain / Jared Green

Foote looks to nature for solutions, perhaps because he has spent decades witnessing the failings of modern medicine to solve PTSD in wounded warriors. “We have been trying to heal people one organ at a time with pills and surgery.” But the problem is that PTSD “doesn’t respond to those treatments, so we need to try holistic approaches.”

That move towards holistic medicine — which the Greeks of ancient times and the Chinese of today still practice — has been a slog. “Our cultural obsession with technology means we underestimate holistic therapy.” Mainstream medical practitioners undervalue it, because, to date, it has been impossible to measure “whole body effects, mathematically.” They can only measure with confidence that this treatment or that pill yields results on this or that organ.

Foote sees the future in creating proof of the benefits of holistic approaches: a set of “whole body metrics” that could be used to test and measure the effect of these treatments for PTSD and other disorders. Foote wants to apply many technologies and approaches to forge these new metrics: genomics, which would look at which genes are turned on during PTSD and what can turn then off; artificial intelligence-based textual analysis of patients’ writings to categorize and diagnose their disorders; integrated biometrics of stress to measure physiological effects of suffering and also treatments; and big data analyses to find more accurate sub-groups for evaluation. Foote hopes the Green Road can help test these nascent “whole body metrics,” at least for the metrics and potential treatments related to exposure to nature. “I hope this becomes the national laboratory for studying how humans interact with nature.”

Trees and people / Jared Green
Humans and nature / Jared Green

His plan is that a group of 50 veterans, some suffering from PTSD and some not, will be studied in the Green Road. Their physiological response to the place will be measured in detail. “We could ask a group to spend an hour in the Green Road on a scavenger hunt, and then the next day, they could do the same on the streets and we could measure the differences in their responses.”

While the Green Road is a major success, the only criticism is that it’s hidden behind buildings and parking lots, and there is no signage to explain how to get there. It’s a good 15 minute walk from the medical facilities. For patients, it’s a destination, not a place to simply wander into. Walter Reed will need to further promote to ensure it’s well-used by the people who need it. Asked whether Walter Reed will actually prescribe patient time there or conduct horiticultural therapy sessions there, Foote seemed a bit pessimistic, pointing to limited budgets. “We need $2 million, $5 million to do everything.” But he does see the Green Road hosting events and therapeutic exercises.

His grand vision for sometime in the near future is beautiful: sufferers of PTSD will wear a device like a Fitbit that would measure whole body responses and would let them know when they are getting stressed and alert them to go spend time in a park. A fascinating mix of ancient wisdom and new technologies.

Collaboration Is King

A rendering of the proposed Hudson Yards gardens by Nelson Byrd Woltz, with Thomas Heatherwick’s sculptural tower / Hudson Yards

If one were to pen a history of landscape architecture, who would emerge as the central hero? Or would it be a person at all? Thomas Woltz, FASLA, principal at Nelson Byrd Woltz, proposed collaboration as landscape’s protagonist in a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. Collaboration, according to Woltz, “is the only way to realize incredibly complex and layered projects.”

“We live in a society that wants chest-beating heroes,” Woltz said. But the practice of landscape architecture offers little room for excessive pride.

“Your project is only as good as the next tsunami, hurricane, or flood. Landscape straddles horticulture, civil engineering, culture, storm water management, and all these systems have to work together. It is a very humbling profession.”

For that reason, Nelson Byrd Woltz actively engages with experts from a number of fields – conservation biology, soil science, ornithology, cultural history, and archaeology, to name a few – as a means “to tell the story of the land.”

Richard Weller, ASLA and chair of the School of Design’s landscape architecture department, noted that the resulting design work is “intrinsically of its place, evidently beautiful, and poetic without lapsing into spectacle.” It marries ecological restoration with highly-composed and relevant designs. In other words, it has integrity.

Woltz prefers the word authenticity. He described authenticity not as a byproduct of a design, but rather the result of an intentional process on the part of the designer.

“We research events, traces, and artifacts of the specific place, then find ways through the design process to reveal and celebrate those narratives.” It just so happens that the history of a site serves as an inventory of rich design ideas.

Asked for a recent example of this pursuit of authenticity, Woltz offered his firm’s work on the daylighting of Cockrill Spring in Nashville’s Centennial Park.

The excavated Cockrill Spring / Nathan Hubbard

“In early traveler’s letters there was repeated mention of returning to Nashville along the Natchez Trace and knowing you were home when you ‘drank the cold waters of Cockrill Spring’.” So Woltz and his team worked with archaeologists to locate and excavate the spring. They then designed a contemporary fountain that celebrates the water and tells the story of an important but relatively unknown early settler, Anne Cockrill. The spring now supplies much of the park’s irrigation.

Isn’t examining early maps and historic artifacts the natural thing to do when beginning a project? “In my opinion, it’s the responsible thing to do,” Woltz said. “We owe it to every site to look carefully at what was there before we showed up.”

One would think this method is perhaps less applicable on a site as developed as Manhattan. But Woltz received a laugh from the crowd when, presenting his firm’s recent work on the eastern Hudson Yards, he shared that his firm’s research began with the examination of maps of Manhattan island from 1609. This research clued them into the existence of several streams underneath the train yards. During early talks with the project’s civil engineer, Woltz asked, “How does all of the water underneath the site get out to the Hudson River?” “How,” the civil engineer responded, “did you know there’s water down there?”

Collaboration was an integral part of the Hudson Yards project from the beginning, Woltz said, as the project deals with enormous complexities in sewage, transportation, irrigation, and engineering systems. Initially, there was no one entity coordinating those elements. But Woltz emphasized that landscape architects can inhabit this coordination role, as his firm has done.

In concluding the survey of his firm’s work, Woltz touched on humility once again. “I’m showing you the successes,” Woltz said. “I would love to give a lecture on all the failed things we’ve tried.”

A Memorial to a Sad Future

Climate Chronograph / Eric Jensen and
Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter

The winner of the Memorials for the Future competition, which was sponsored by the National Park Service, Van Alen Institute, and others, offers a depressing vision: a monument to our collective failure to stave off climate change. Climate Chronograph by Erik Jensen, Assoc. ASLA, and Rebecca Sunter, Assoc. ASLA, of Azimuth Land Craft envisions a living landscape in East Potomac Park, Washington, D.C. that slowly dies as water levels rise. The landscape is the canary in the coal mine. Here, the canary educates the public, slowly, over the decades, about what happens to our landscapes when carbon dioxide pollution warms the planet.

The designers are inspired by the Egyptian nilometer, which was “both a temple to the sacred indeterminacy of water and a meter for predicting seasonal flood potentials of the Nile River.” Only priests in ancient Egypt could use this sacred tool, because its forecasts were so critical. “The prosperity of the kingdom hinged upon a few cubits of river height: a mere 18 inches could mean the difference between famine, abundance, or disaster.”

Egyptian Nilometer / David Roberts
Egyptian Nilometer / David Roberts

Jensen and Sunter’s memorial would function as the nilometer of climate change. They see an opportunity to send their message, in landscape form, in East Potomac Park, where deferred maintenance has left the sea walls in near ruins. Millions are needed to rebuild them, but “funding and philosophical questions remain and no design or financing plans have been finalized.”

And instead of rebuilding, the space could just be opened up to climate change, becoming a “public record of rising sea levels, a living observatory for an emergent process. Nature will write our story, our choices, into the landscape as we face this most vulnerable moment.”

Their sad, brilliant idea subverts the iconic Washington, D.C. landscape — the jubilant groves of cherry trees. In their proposal, rows of them become soldiers, sent into a futile battle. “As waters rise, tides encroach on the land and the trees die in place, row by row, becoming bare-branched rampikes delineating shorelines past. With every fourth row of trees marking one foot of elevation, the composition becomes a processional tidal gauge—a record.”

Rows of Cherry Trees, Climate Chronograph /
Rows of Cherry Trees, Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter
Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter
Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter

Beyond the dying cherry trees, the rest of the memorial would help the public understand what it means to return to the tides. The memorial would cede control “to natural succession and decay.” Instead of beleaguered sea walls, the water edge would become a “fecund place for exploration, observation, and learning, sheltered cove for discovery and research of an emergent wetland ecosystem.”

Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter
Climate Chronograph / Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter

They ask for $2.5 million to build this. Artful, educational, and ecological transition appears to be far cheaper than shoring up defenses.

Also worth exploring are some of the findings the National Park Service and Van Alen Institute pulled out of their Memorials for the Future process. A few great ideas: create memorials with the public as well as for the public; and consider ephemeral, mobile, and temporary forms.

ASLA Launches Guide to Resilient Design

Resilient design / ASLA
Resilient design / ASLA

A new online guide launched today by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) explains how communities can better protect themselves from natural disasters through resilient landscape planning and design.

According to the guide, the goal of resilient landscape planning and design is to retrofit communities to recover more quickly from extreme events, now and in the future. In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multilayered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often the more cost-effective and practical solutions.

The guide is organized around disruptive events that communities now experience: drought, extreme heat, fire, flooding, and landslides. Biodiversity loss is an underlying threat also explored.

The guide includes hundreds of case studies and resources demonstrating multi-benefit systems as well as small-scale solutions. It also explains landscape architects’ role in the planning and design teams helping to make communities more resilient.

Resilient design involves working with nature—instead of in opposition to it. It provides value to communities, including:

Risk reduction: As events become more frequent and intense due to climate change, communities must adapt and redevelop to reduce potential risks and improve ecological and human health. It’s also time to stop putting communities and infrastructure in high-risk places. And communities must reduce sprawl, which further exacerbates the risks.

Scalability and Diversity: Resilient landscape planning and design offers a multi-layered system of protection, with diverse, scalable elements, any one of which can fail safely in the event of a catastrophe.

Multiple Co-Benefits: Resilient landscape design solutions offers multiple benefits at once. For example, designed coastal buffers can also provide wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities; urban forests made up of diverse species clean the air while reducing the urban heat island effect; and green infrastructure designed to control flooding also provides needed community space and creates jobs.

Regeneration: Disruptive natural events that are now occurring more frequently worldwide harm people and property. Resilient design helps communities come back stronger after these events. Long-term resilience is about continuously bouncing back and regenerating. It’s about learning how to cope with the ever-changing “new normal.”

In an era when disasters can cause traditional, built systems to fail, adaptive, multi-layered systems can maintain their vital functions and are often more cost-effective and practical solutions. In an age of rising waters and temperatures and diminishing budgets, the best defenses are adaptive, like nature.

The guide to resilient design has been strengthened through the expert guidance of Alexander Felson, ASLA, assistant professor, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale School of Architecture; Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning and urban design, University of California at Berkeley; Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, graduate program director and associate professor, Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning; Nate Wooten, Associate ASLA, landscape designer, OLIN; and Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder and dean, Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape and Turenscape.

Explore the guide.

New Museum Brings Hope of African Americans to the National Mall

National Museum of African American History and Culture / Jared Green
National Museum of African American History and Culture / Jared Green

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a breathtaking new presence on the National Mall. Found just northeast of the Washington Monument, the museum, which opens September 24, makes accessible the almost-unimaginable journey of African Americans over the past few centuries: from the horrors of slavery, to the long fight for equality, and, finally, transcendence through spirituality, and extraordinary cultural and artistic achievements.

Over 100 years in the making, the museum cost $540 million, with half of those funds raised from over 100,000 contributors. And some 40,000 Americans contributed works that will be included in the museum’s permanent collection, explained museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III at the media preview.

The museum opens at an opportune time, when race relations are at a new low. As Bunch said, “race and cultural differences now dominate the national discourse. Racism is not a thing of the past. But we believe this museum can be a place that brings people together. This museum can help advance the conversation and be a beacon of what America can be.”

The building itself makes a richly symbolic statement. Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, together with their architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, created a dramatic 200-feet-by-200-feet box, topped with a corona inspired by the “three-tiered crowns used in Yoruba art from West Africa,” where many African American slaves came from. The corona is covered in an “ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice” inspired by the ironwork created by American slaves for estates in New Orleans, Charleston, and other Southern cities.

The building is well-served by a thoughtful and somewhat understated landscape by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN). Designed by Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, and Rodrigo Abela, ASLA, the landscape treats the building as a pavilion in the broader landscape of the National Mall and aims for maximum circulation.

Walking the site with Abela, he explained how visitors can find African American themes of “resilience, spirituality, and hope” symbolically represented in the landscape. On the north side, visitors enter off Constitution Avenue, where they will see a black granite wall that provides the visual base of the site and doubles as a secure barrier. The granite wall is thick here — about 6-feet-wide — and is black to represent the canal water that once flowed through the site. Another possible interpretation of the material: African Americans’ labor is the foundation upon which was built the National Mall. Abela explained how Rugo Stone highly polished the edge of the granite so that it glimmers in the light, creating a horizon that underlines the building.

Black granite wall / Jared Green
Black granite wall / Jared Green

As you walk up the paths on the north side, you will find they are like arms extending out in an embrace. Where the arms meet in a central point, Abela highlighted, is the place where visitors can either decide to veer right and head to the Washington Monument, or veer left and enter the building’s north entrance.

National Museum of African American History and Culture / Smithsonian
National Museum of African American History and Culture / Alan Karchmer Architectural Photographer

Within this embrace, there’s an oculus, which shines a shaft of light into a “contemplative court” set in subterranean galleries that delve into the darkest times of slavery. “It’s a lantern, a welcoming and safe place.” As such, the landscape gently leads you up to the oculus on the surface.

Oculus / Jared Green
Oculus / Jared Green
Oculus interior concept / David Adjaye and Phil Freelon Group
Oculus interior concept / David Adjaye and Phil Freelon Group

And near the embrace, there is a symbolic reading grove, a place where a group of school kids or a few families could gather and talk about the experience about the museum. GGN designed this grove to mimic the “brush arbors,” the community gathering places, many early slave and African American communities would create, even before they had built a church.

Reading Grove / GGN
Reading Grove / GGN
Reading grove / Jared Green
Reading grove / Jared Green

Walking along the western edge of the building, there is a lawn and rows of trees, which are reflected in the building’s wall of windows. Abela said over 100 trees were planted, including elms, oaks, beeches, magnolias, gingkos, sassafras, and cherry trees. “The Smithsonian wanted as much diversity as possible.” In coming decades, those trees will grow to enshroud the building, softening its boldness. And throughout the lawns, some 400,000 crocuses were planted. One of the first plants to bloom, they represent hope for the future.

Trees reflected in the building / Jared Green
Trees reflected in the windows / Jared Green
Trees in northeast corner / Jared Green
Trees in northeast corner / Jared Green

On the eastern edge of the building, there is a staircase leading down to the lower level, which is an emergency exit for the auditorium, a separate entry into a loading dock, and bicycle parking for staff.

The southern entrance of the park, right off the National Mall, is where the Smithsonian expects about 70 percent of visitors will enter. There is a grand porch, another reference to African American culture, with a striking overhang providing shade over a fountain, which wasn’t working for the media preview, but will bring another cooling aspect during D.C.’s sweltering summers.

South side aerial / Anthony Lyons
South side aerial view / Anthony Lyons
Front porch / Jared Green
Looking up at front porch / Jared Green

Multiple paths invite visitors in from Madison Avenue. Once they pass through the gates, there is a sense of passing through a threshold into a new environment.

One of the southern entrances / Jared Green
One of the southern entrances / Jared Green

The southern edge of the park is richer with small plants and shrubs, which form a rain garden that mute the effect of the stark black granite walls.

south side entrance / Jared Green
South side wall and garden / Jared Green
south side rain garden / Jared Green
South side rain garden / Jared Green

A note on sustainability: More than half of the LEED Gold building is buried below ground, which means lower energy use. And below the structure, there are two large cisterns that collect rainwater that hits the building, so that it can be reused for irrigation.

Through the landscape architecture, Abela explained, “the story of African Americans are made part of the national story,” as represented by the expansive National Mall. “It’s a site that’s connected to the greater landscape beyond.”