Landscape Architects Form High-Profile Task Force to Take Action on Climate and Biodiversity Crises

ASLA 2019 Professional General Design Honor Award. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park Phase II: A New Urban Ecology. Long Island City, NY, USA. SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI with ARUP / copyright Vecerka/ESTO, courtesy of SWA/BALSLEY and WEISS/MANFREDI

Led by climate leaders in the field of landscape architecture, ASLA is developing a profession-wide Climate Action Plan

ASLA has announced it is developing its first Climate Action Plan for the U.S. landscape architecture community. The ambitious plan seeks to transform the practice of landscape architecture by 2040 through actions taken by ASLA and its members focused on climate mitigation and adaptation, ecological restoration, biodiversity, equity, and economic development. The plan will be released at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, November 11-14, 2022, in San Francisco, CA.

The ASLA Climate Action Plan is led by a five-member Task Force and 16-member Advisory Group of climate leaders from the landscape architecture profession.

Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Founder of Climate Positive Design and Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture, has been named chair of the Task Force.

The diverse, intergenerational Task Force includes climate leaders at different stages of their professional life.

“Landscape architects are leaders in designing solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises that also provide multiple environmental, economic, social, and health co-benefits. ASLA purposefully included both established and emerging climate leaders in this critical Task Force, which will shape the profession far into the future,” said Eugenia Martin, FASLA, ASLA President.

Task Force members include:

  • Chair: Pamela Conrad, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP, Principal, CMG Landscape Architecture, and Founder, Climate Positive Design, San Francisco, California

    Conrad built Climate Positive Design into a global movement with the goal of ensuring all designed landscapes store more carbon than they emit while providing environmental, social, cultural, and economic co-benefits.

  • Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, D. Eng., PLA, Director, Program in Landscape Architecture, University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), and Principal Landscape Architect, DesignJones, LLC, Arlington, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana
  • José M. Almiñana, FASLA, SITES AP, LEED AP, Principal, Andropogon Associates, Ltd., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Sarah Fitzgerald, ASLA, Designer, SWA Group, Dallas, Texas
  • Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, PLA, Former ASLA President, Seattle, Washington
ASLA Climate Action Plan Task Force / ASLA

The goals, objectives, and action items of the plan are also shaped by a Climate Action Plan Advisory Group of 16 diverse climate leaders, who are based in 12 U.S. states and two countries and in private and public practice and academia. The Group consists of nine members who identify as women, seven as men, two as Black, four as Asian and Asian American, one as Latina, and one as Native American.

“ASLA believes equity needs to be at the center of climate action, because we know climate change will disproportionately impact underserved and historically marginalized communities. It is important that the group guiding the Climate Action Plan and the future of the profession mirrors the diversity of the landscape architecture community and its breadth of educational and practice areas,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, ASLA CEO.

Advisory Group members include:

  • Monique Bassey, ASLA, Marie Bickham Chair, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Scott Bishop, ASLA, RLA, Principal, BLD | Bishop Land Design, Quincy, Massachusetts
  • Keith Bowers, FASLA, RLA, PWS, Founding Principal, Biohabitats, Charleston, South Carolina
  • Pippa Brashear, ASLA, RLA, Resilience Principal, SCAPE Landscape Architecture & Urban Design, New York, New York
  • Meg Calkins, FASLA, FCELA, Professor of Landscape Architecture, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Chingwen Cheng, ASLA, PhD, PLA, LEED AP, Program Head and Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, Urban Design, and Environmental Design, The Design School, Arizona State University, and President-Elect, Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA), Tempe, Arizona
  • Jose de Jesus Leal, ASLA, PLA, IA, Native Nation Building Studio Director, MIG, Inc., Sacramento, California
  • Manisha Kaul, ASLA, PLA, CDT, Principal, Design Workshop, Inc., Chicago, Illinois
  • Greg Kochanowski, ASLA, AIA, Design Principal & Partner, GGA, and Founder, The Wild: A Research Lab, Los Angeles, CA
  • Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Studio-MLA, Los Angeles, CA
  • Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, FRIBA, FAAK, Associate AIA, President, HM Design, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
  • Kate Orff, FASLA, Professor, Columbia University GSAPP & Columbia Climate School, and Founder, SCAPE Landscape Architecture & Urban Design, New York, New York
  • Jean Senechal Biggs, ASLA, Transportation Planning Manager, City of Beaverton, Portland, Oregon
  • Adrian Smith, FASLA, Staten Island Team Leader, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, New York, New York
  • Matt Williams, ASLA, Planner, City of Detroit Planning & Development Department (PDD), Detroit, Michigan
  • Dou Zhang, FASLA, SITES AP, LEED AP BD+C, Director of Shanghai Office, Sasaki, Shanghai, China
ASLA Climate Action Plan Advisory Group / ASLA

In 2021, ASLA joined with Architecture 2030 to call for the landscape architecture, planning, architecture, development, and construction professions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their projects and operations by 50-65 percent by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2040.

Also last year, ASLA ratified the International Federation of Landscape Architects’ Climate Action Commitment, which calls for limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F). The commitment is supported by 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries, the largest coalition of landscape architecture professionals ever assembled to advance climate action.

In 2020, ASLA and its members formed a Climate Action Committee, which has guided climate action priorities and laid the groundwork for the Climate Action Plan.

Ideas Competition: A Memorial for Witches

Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem trials / Public Domain

“The persecution of women perceived to be witches took place throughout Europe and America for several hundred years. Women who were classed as witches because of their non-Christian practices were tortured and killed from as early as the mid-1400s in Europe, and roughly 80,000 witches were put to death between 1500 and 1660.”

Buildner, which bill itself as the world’s largest organizer of architecture competitions and has awarded more than $1 million in prizes, has launched a new global ideas competition for a memorial to people unjustly persecuted as witches throughout history. Entrants are welcome to select any location and design any structure, with any material, but with sustainable practices in mind.

Entrants are also not limited to a particular event or injustice. Landscape architects and other designers can mine the past or examine the present. Concepts can educate about past persecution or provide a “method of whistle blowing and raising awareness of ongoing injustices.”

According to the organizers, witch trials have been staged for hundreds of years and in some communities continue to this day.

The most famous is perhaps the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692-93. More than 200 were accused of witchcraft and nineteen were executed, including fourteen women and five men. All were hanged except one who was pressed to death with heavy stones. Buildner notes that this is a “relatively small number compared to the Basque Witch Trials of the 17th century in Spain, in which around some 7,000 cases of witchcraft were heard.”

Francisco de Goya’s Witches Sabbath, 1798 / Public Domain

While the popular image is of witches burned at the stake, most in England and the American colonies were hanged. “30,000–60,000 women, men, and children” were executed this way during the height of witch mania in the western world.

The Memorial for Witches competition is the first in a series of competitions that seeks to “remind the public” of the ways in which society deals with “irrational fears.” They note that “those who were feared and misunderstood were suppressed and victimized, a trend of social injustice that still takes place to this day.”

Indeed, National Geographic states that 21 percent of Americans currently believe in witchcraft and attacks on socially marginalized groups have risen. And the United Nations and other human rights groups have found the number of witch trials and hunts around the world has increased, particularly in India and some Sub-Saharan African countries. In recent years, witch hunts in Sub-Saharan African countries, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia have resulted in many innocent women, men, and children kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

Modern witch-hunts in India / Feminism in India

While the jury hasn’t been announced yet, past juries of Buildner competitions have included Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, and leading landscape architects and architects from firms such as MVRDV, Zaha Hadid Architects, Snøhetta, and UN Studio.

First prize winners will receive €3,000 ($3,044); the second prize, €1,500 ($1,522); and third prize, €1,000 ($1,014); while one student winner will also receive €1,000.

Register by November 11 and submit your entries by December 15. Winners will be announced in February, 2023.

Separate but Unequal: The History of Racial Exclusion in Southern Parks

Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South / Library Of American Landscape History

By Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA

William E. O’Brien’s book, Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South, was first published as a hardcover edition in 2015. It is ironic that one year later in 2016, the U.S. Presidential election would usher in cultural and racial shifts that further divided Americans into ideological factions. This year, O’Brien’s book has been reissued as a paperback. It presents a mirror with which we can look back and see the profound changes in America, which is greatly needed in our divisive social media age of disinformation and historical erasure.

In a new forward, Ethan Carr, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, reinforces O’Brien’s efforts to highlight “the impact of racial ideologies on park design throughout the twentieth century — and to this day.” O’Brien, who is trained as a geographer and is professor of environmental studies at Florida Atlantic University, acknowledges this impact by documenting the current efforts in many southern states to acknowledge the recreational segregation of the past. Early in his book, O’Brien’s refers to the efforts of the Texas Parks and Wildlife agency to add signage at Tyler State Park that recognizes “the Texas start state park system’s racial exclusion policy under Jim Crow.” Yet, he remains steadfast in his view that more must be done to acknowledge the segregation of the past in southern parks. He pronounces the example of the Tennessee park named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the “first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan,” as an indicator of the work remaining to be done in redressing the remnants of Jim Crow.

This is a well-researched book that documents public space segregation within state parks and southern society, in particular during the 100-year period from the post-Civil War era through 1968. These Jim Crow laws (or Black Codes) were named after a minstrel character in “blackface,” which depicted newly freed slaves as less than human. The laws subjugated Black Americans and dictated their movements and access to recreation, education, and other benefits accessible to white Americans. The Jim Crow laws limited African American progress for decades, which specifically included access to recreation in southern states.

O’Brien’s research spans the establishment of the first state park – Yosemite Park in California in 1864 — to a collection of southern state parks. His map indicating white and African American park sites from 1937-1962 is a striking visual record of the Jim Crow segregated culture that created an imbalance in park distribution and quality. He does not shy away from highlighting systemic racism based on the doctrine of ”separate-but-equal” and the disparities created between white and African American park facilities.

Locations of state parks in the South highlighting facilities made available to African Americans between 1937 and 1962. Map by the author. / Courtesy of Library of American Landscape History

The book, which is divided into six chapters, begins with a chronicling of the state park systems in American and ends with views on the current cultural transformation of integrated state parks. The threads that connect all chapters are well-documented historical perspective on Jim Crow laws, the evasive legislative tactics used by southern states to prolong segregated facilities, and the bureaucratic operations and racially negligent tactics of parks agencies. Other threads include the defiance of segregation by African Americans through legal efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and insightful testimonials of ordinary citizens on both sides of the segregation divide.

He consistently reinforces how inadequate and unequal facilities for African Americans were, while highlighting specific parks in each southern state. Lake Murray State Park in Oklahoma is an example of unequal park facility that also included disparities in architectural quality. While the “Negro Recreation Area” designated as Camp No. 3 had cabins made of board and batten exteriors, the white-only Camp No. 1 had cabins made of wood timbers and stone fireplaces.

A cabin in white-only Camp No. 1 at Lake Murray State Park, constructed in 1938 as part of the Lake Murray RDA. / Photo by the author, 2012. Courtesy of Library of American Landscape History
A cabin in Camp No. 3 at Lake Murray State Park’s “Negro Recreation Area.” / Photo by the author, 2012. Courtesy of Library of American Landscape History

Oklahoma park service administrators understood white protests regarding proximity to “Negro” park areas and often succumbed to white resentments about physical contact with African Americans.

The park service supervisor, Milo Christenson, relayed white concerns, stating that “white groups will never use these facilities if they have ever been used by negro groups.” This was the understanding within the park service administration that was repeated in other southern states, helping to prolong the segregation of state parks even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, ended segregation.

O’Brien also documents that African Americans were not allowed to use “Negro area” facilities after sundown, and African American recreation areas were mostly restricted to areas that had little or no access to water, historical, and other scenic features. Day-use only restrictions were only one of many methods used by parks officials to create physical separation of the races.

A 1929 survey of California state parks by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. “expressed a desire to make state parks equitably accessible while maintaining standards of scenic quality.” However, this idealistic philosophy of state park development standards was out of reach for African Americans in southern states until the late 1960’s. With the development of separate parks, African Americans didn’t benefit from this Olmstedian idealization of scenic beauty.

Visitors at a scenic overlook in 1951 at the site of Breaks Interstate Park on the Virignia–Kentucky border, officially opened in 1955. / Courtesy Library of Virginia, Library of American Landscape History

African American self-help and advocacy was crucial in obtaining their own quality recreational facilities. In 1920, the Parks and Recreation Association (PRA) “added a Bureau of Colored Work, directed by Ernest Attwell – a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute – to help ensure more adequate park provision for African Americans,” O’Brien writes. The PRA was established in 1906 to support the development of state parks in the U.S. Attwell’s position and his efforts to grow quality recreational opportunities for African Americans was one of the first pivotal appointments within a state parks organization.

African Americans also created their own “private recreation retreats, including exclusive rural resorts in places such as Buckroe, Virginia, Idlewild, Michigan, and Gulfview, Mississippi.” Other African American intellectuals and leaders such as “Dr. John B. Watson, president of Pine Bluff’s Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), a historically Black College” were instrumental in securing the first Arkansas park designed for African Americans.

Dr. John Brown Watson. / Courtesy John Brown Watson Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University Library, Library of American Landscape History

In “June 1937, [Watson] deeded to the state a hundred-acre parcel of his own land, located eight miles west of Pine Bluff, and a consortium of six government agencies, federal and state, agreed to spend $20,000 for park development.” Development of the park was only partially completed before Watson’s death in 1942. Given the lack of Arkansas state enthusiasm for fulfilling their commitments “his widow, Hattie M. Watson, sued for the return of the land to the Watson estate.” In 1944, her case was successful, and the land was returned to the Watson family.

One of the most fascinating examples of a Black-owned park during the segregation era was Gulfside State Park, owned and operated by Robert E. Jones, a Methodist bishop from Greensboro, North Carolina. O’Brien writes that “in 1923, he had purchased the property, which included a mansion once owned by President Andrew Jackson along with 300 acres…adjacent to 320 state-owned acres that Jones also acquired.” African Americans traveled from long distances to visit the park. “The New York Amsterdam News in 1926 hailed the resort as ‘the only project of its kind that has ever been launched in America.” Park activities included summer schools, music venues, home economics, religious studies, and camping trips. Unfortunately, the Great Depression destroyed the financial viability of the park, its Gulfside Association, and its future.

Assessing the effect of Jim Crow laws on African Americans, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, states that “black men and women attempted to fight back in various ways, including nurturing their own segregated social and cultural institutions, especially churches, schools, colleges, self-help organizations. And black intellectuals, creative artists, and political activists increasingly grappled in their responses to the so-called Negro Problem.”

A group photo at the bathhouse on Butler Beach in the 1950s, prior to the site’s development as a state park. / Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Library of American Landscape History

O’Brien’s balanced research on Black self-help to achieve some measure of recreational access in the face of Jim Crow is one of the crowning successes of his book. There are many other well researched elements in the book relating to the history of the “Negro Problem,” park planning and politics, post-World War II separate but equal policies, and court battles primarily brought by the NAACP to dismantle park segregation. Together, these research areas build a much-needed historical record of Jim Crow and the exclusion of African Americans in southern state parks.

While Landscapes of Exclusion is comprehensive, O’Brien’s academic prose and roaming timeline structure often makes reading the book a slow process. This is not inherently bad, and readers should do the work necessary to read and learn from O’Brien’s historical survey. Anyone exploring landscape, planning, and public space history will find the book interesting. O’Brien has crafted an intensively researched history of the political, social, racial, and environmental implications of Jim Crow practices and the unfair distribution of parks in the southern United States. His work can withstand present day attempts to deny history and turn facts into divisive political weapons.

Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA, is cofounder and principal of PUSH studio in Washington, D.C., and founder and former president of the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN). His landscape architecture projects include garden designs, urban waterfronts, community redevelopment, playgrounds and memorial monument design. He has directed graduate landscape architecture programs at two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — Florida A&M University and Morgan State University.

Presidio Tunnel Tops: Infrastructure Designed for 360 Views and Fun

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Doyle Drive Bridge in the north end of San Francisco, which had moved vehicles through the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge since the 1930s. As a result, California’s department of transportation (Caltrans) embarked on a planning effort to re-engineer the roadways and interchanges through the Presidio. During those discussions in the 1990s, landscape architect Michael Painter, designer of the parkway system within the 1,500-acre Presidio, offered a plan for replacing the viaduct, which had severed the upper areas of the Presidio from Crissy Field, with tunnels. His idea was that with tunnels, the city could then use the space on top for a new park. More than thirty years later, James Corner Field Operations has realized this vision with Presidio Tunnel Tops, a 14-acre park designed for kids and their families.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / James Corner Field Operations, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

According to Richard Kennedy, ASLA, principal-in-charge and head of the San Francisco office of Field Operations, Caltrans had offered to form the soil from the tunnel excavation and other landscape work into a flat top and a triangular edge. But the Presidio Trust, the National Park Service, the Golden Gate Park National Parks Conservancy, and Field Operations had other ideas. They would rather sculpt the land. “We decided to create a topographical design,” Kennedy said, eventually using more than 90,000 cubic yards of soil. And in order to do this, they first had to look deep underground.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / James Corner Field Operations, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

Given San Francisco is an active seismic area, the Presidio Parkway tunnels, which were completed in 2012, had to be engineered for stability. This meant the rest of the adjacent Tunnel Tops landscape, a project that started in 2014, also needed to be engineered in a similar way. “That way, in the event of another earthquake, everything would move as a contiguous system with no differential settlement,” Kennedy said.

MKA, a Seattle-based engineering firm, set the tunnel park on 40-foot-deep stone columns arranged in a 10 by 10-foot grid. Each column, comprised of gravel, is 3 feet in diameter. This complex subterranean work isn’t apparent on the surface of the park, but for Kennedy it shows that the park is also infrastructure, and that infrastructure investment is needed for landscape architects to realize their vision.

“It’s a new vision for this area of the Presidio — open public parkland. Before, the perception was the Presidio was a kind of commercial office park. Our goal was to invite the public in with disarming and sometimes obvious elements. On opening day, there were over two thousand children in the playground,” Kennedy said.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / James Corner Field Operations, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

Field Operations organized Tunnel Tops into three landscape zones. The first zone is a “platform,” a flat landscape on top of the tunnels at the same level of the Presidio’s main parade, which essentially acts as an extension of the historic military base.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Ryan White, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

“We purposefully designed it as a platform to leverage the incredible panorama. This elevation of 40 feet enables visitors to turn 360 degrees and see everything — from Marin to the Golden Gate Bridge, to Alcatraz Island, the Presidio, and the Palace of Fine Arts. This is an experience visitors couldn’t have had when the viaduct blocked views.”

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

The second landscape zone is what Field Operations calls the Cliff Walk, a set of trails and gathering places that intentionally focus visitors on landmarks at vantage points. “We used the slope to a great extent. As visitors wind through the trail, their body position moves, so they see different elements of the horizon. It’s surprising, awesome, and highlights the drama of being on the edge,” Kennedy said.

Along this edge are charismatic benches made of cypress trees that had been culled from the Presidio. Kennedy said Field Operations had hoped for sculpting a large piece of driftwood but no such trunk large enough appeared on the park coastline (another was found and used in the playground). Instead the benches are sculptured out of 9.5-inch wide planks and “assembled Jenga-style” into a curvature that resembles a tree. He said as cypress wood dries, it becomes metallic grey and when it catches the light sparkles like a silver fish. The perfect wood for a vista over the Bay.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

The Outpost, an interactive play landscape, is the third zone. It’s where most visitors may enter Tunnel Tops, off of Mason Street, which bisects the upper area of the Presidio and Crissy Field. Other draws here include the new Crissy Field Center and adjacent Field Station, two environmental learning centers designed by architecture firm EHDD, with exhibition designers at Studio Terpeluk, which will teach kids about anthropology and ecology. This area is “designed to appeal to a broader sweep of families,” Kennedy said.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

Given the upper portion of Tunnel Tops needed to be flat and highlight the panorama, Field Operations could use the lower portions nestled in the slope to add more intricacy without obstructing views.

Custom play elements are designed to bring children into the vistas. For example, there is a gap in the Outpost’s climbing wall on axis with Golden Gate Bridge. “Moments like this can create positive memories and life-long connections to the outdoors,” Kennedy argued.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

The Outpost is also designed so that as the plants grow in overtime, the playground will feel more like the marshlands of Crissy Fields. The same plant species are found in the play area. “Labyrinthine trails will form, adding a layer of mystery.”

Play elements extend east from the Crissy Field Center creating an inclusive environment for toddlers to preteen children. The elements escalate in complexity as children move outwards from the buildings.

Near the Field Center, there are simple play areas comprised of sand and water for the youngest children. Older children can then enjoy a tunnel through a large driftwood trunk, which lets them to burrow through or climb above, along with slides set in boulders.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)
Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

The bird’s nest sculpture, which is modeled after an oriole’s teardrop nest, enables children to climb on the outside and perch at the top, or climb from inside the nest and “poke their head out like small birds.”

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

The most difficult element is the forest den, which is a pile of logs. The interior of the structure has a small room filled with ropes and nets. “The exterior of the pile is purposefully challenging to climb and was designed to provide a sense of graduated risk. I have watched as some children became very nervous as they climb further towards the top. While the children can play safely, they can experience challenges, which also challenges themselves. I have seen children form teams. It asks them to be more brave,” Kennedy said.

Presidio Tunnel Tops / Rachel Styer, courtesy of Partnership for the Presidio (Presidio Trust, NPS, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy)

On opening weekend Kennedy also saw teenagers climbing to the top of the logs to experience the view. For them, Field Operations has also designed seating areas that will eventually be enshrouded in marshes.

The new park includes over 200,000 plants of 200 varieties, many of which support birds and pollinators. Approximately 50 percent are native and drought-tolerant plants, chosen for what the climate will be in a few decades. The native plants were grown from seed in a nearby Presidio nursery to ensure they are “genetically specific to this landscape,” Kennedy said. The Presidio Trust “invested in plant communities that will last and can coexist with existing natural resources in the national park.”

The upper level landscape, which is connected with the manufactured military landscape of the Presidio, offers Mediterranean plants from countries like Chile and South Africa that will better blend with the existing non-native cypress and eucalyptus trees and gardens. In the Outpost, Field Operations focused on incorporating 100 percent native plants.

Presidio Tunnel Tops was made possible by a number of organizations. The Presidio Trust, a non-profit organization, has a mandate to preserve the historic military base and has restored 150 acres of landscape to date. The Presidio in turn is part of the 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service, the country’s largest urban national park. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy is the non-profit arm of the park and raised $98 million of the $118 million project, while the Presidio Trust provided the other $20 million.

The Tunnel Tops is just one part of a broader revitalization of the Presidio. CMG Landscape Architecture, a San Francisco-based firm, is creating a plan to update Crissy Field, the beloved landmark designed by HargreavesJones that opened in 2001.

To Climate Proof Notre-Dame, Paris Looks to a Landscape Architect

Notre-Dame landscape plan / © Studio Alma for BBS

“What we are doing is using shade, humidity, wind, and water to lower the temperature in the heart of Paris,” explained Brussels-based landscape architect Bas Smets, who has won an international design competition to redesign the landscape around Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Founder of Bureau Bas Smets (BBS), Smets is leveraging nature-based solutions, including a significant expansion of green space and a scrim of water, to cool the cathedral and protect it from future climate impacts.

Notre-Dame landscape plan / © Studio Alma for BBS

In 2019, the cathedral caught fire, causing the destruction of its 150-foot-tall spire and interiors. The reconstruction of the 760-year-old medieval Catholic cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has started, but the organizers of the competition, which include the Paris city government; Diocese of Paris; and Public Establishment, the conservators of the cathedral, saw the need to further leverage the landscape to preserve the monument for future visitors and worshippers.

Smets is leading a team on the $50.3 million project that includes Paris-based firms GRAU, an architecture and urbanism firm, and Neufville-Gayet Architects, an architecture firm specializing in historic buildings. Together, they are re-imagining the visitor experience of the gothic cathedral while also adapting the site to rising temperatures. Their goals align with Paris’ Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce heat islands throughout the city.

Smet’s team will ring the cathedral in trees that will provide shade and cool the air, creating a micro-climate on Île de la Cité, the island in the midst of the Seine River where the cathedral is found, and its immediate surrounding area. The form of the existing rectangular square in front of the cathedral will be simplified, creating “a perfect rectangular form” to make it clearer and more usable, edged with a new canopy of trees, Smet’s firm states.

According to The New York Times, the Jean XXIII Square, a park behind the cathedral, will be connected with new green spaces that extend to the edge of Île de la Cité. This new park will link with gardens on the cathedral’s southern edge, creating a 1,300-foot-long green space planted with 131 new trees. The Architect’s Newspaper also notes that Île-de-France Square will also be integrated into the new plans. Throughout the expanded site, trees will increase by nearly 35 percent, in places layered behind existing trees, so as to not obstruct protected views.

Notre-Dame landscape plan / © Bureau Bas Smets
Notre-Dame landscape plan / © Bureau Bas Smets

Water will also be used to support that new micro-climate. Smets’ team plans for a 5-milimeter (one fifth of an inch) scrim of water in the forecourt of the cathedral in the summer. The water element will help cool the facade of Notre-Dame while bringing a shimmer to visitors’ photographs.

At the same time, Smets is rethinking the entire visitor experience and creating new pedestrian connections to the cathedral. A parking lot under the cathedral will be transformed into a welcome center and connect with an existing archeological museum that will now be accessible via a new passageway off the quay along the Seine. Currently visitors need to access the cathedral via stairs from the quay.

Notre-Dame landscape plan / © Jeudi Wang for BBS
Notre-Dame landscape plan / © Studio Alma for BBS

The New York Times reports that at a press conference, Father Drouin with the Diocese said: “I am very pleased that the tragedy of the fire will enable us to recreate physical and symbolic ties between the capital and its urban environment.”

While leading with climate, the landscape architecture address issues holistically. “The urban figures, such as forecourt, square, square, alignment and banks, are all present around the cathedral, but in a fragmented way. The project reveals the quality of each place and rethinks each of these figures from the double angle of the collective and the climate,” Smets told Paris.

Notre-Dame landscape plan / © Studio Alma for BBS

And as he noted to Wallpaper magazine, “we wanted to make a nuanced composition. You’ll walk in, sit, stay, go underground, open towards the river, emerge close to the entrance…More than giving a form, we are giving an experience.”

The restoration of the cathedral is expected to be completed by 2024, when Paris hosts the summer Olympic games, while the landscape redesign is scheduled to be finished by 2027.

For those in the Washington, D.C. area, also check out the National Building Museum’s augmented reality tour of Notre-Dame.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 1-15, 2022)

Elks Children’s Eye Clinic / Mayer/Reed

Elks Children’s Eye Clinic Creates Landscape Design for All – 07/12/2022, Healthcare Design Magazine
“As the landscape architect for a sensory garden at Elks Children’s Eye Clinic in Portland, Oregon, Mayer/Reed (Portland) considered ways to create a welcoming environment for children whose sight may be limited.”

Study: Rising Seas Are Weakening Nature’s Storm Shields – 07/11/2022, Grist
“Barrier islands shield the mainland from hurricanes, waves, erosion, and flooding, taking the brunt of a storm’s early blows. Without them, experts say hurricane damage to towns and cities inland would be even worse.”

Humans Need to Value Nature as Well as Profits to Survive, UN Report Finds – 07/11/2022, The Guardian
“Focus on market has led to climate crises, with spiritual, cultural and emotional benefits of nature ignored.”

Cities Aren’t Built for Kids But They Could Be – 07/07/2022, The Atlantic
“With a little thought, run-of-the-mill city infrastructure can be reenvisioned for play.”

Presidio Tunnel Tops Opens This Weekend. Here Are 15 Ways to Explore S.F.’s Huge New Park – 07/11/2022, San Francisco Chronicle
“Tunnel Tops Park creates an attraction that few imagined years ago—and in a way that encourages us to watch the Presidio’s massive transformation from an army outpost into America’s most unusual national park.”

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg Creates “Interspecies Artwork” at Serpentine Galleries – 07/07/2022, Dezeen
“Artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg has created a digital AI tool named Pollinator Pathmaker to design the best possible gardens for bees and other insects to enjoy.”

The Business Case for Multimodal Transportation Planning – 07/06/2022, Planetizen
“Travel demands are changing and so should planning. There are good reasons for communities to spend less on automobile facilities and more on walking, bicycling, and public transit.”

OSD Tapped to Design “Landscape for Healing and Community” at the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine in Arkansas – 07/06/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“OSD’s proposal envisions an overall focus on ‘holistically integrating’ the new building with the surrounding woodlands.”

Climate Change Breaks Plant Immune Systems. Can They Be Rebooted? – 07/05/2022, Wired
“When temperatures rise, plants mysteriously lose their ability to defend against invading pathogens—but there may be a fix.”

Comments Due: Shape the Future of Pennsylvania Avenue

Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. / istockphoto.com, SerrNovik

After several years of intensive study and community planning, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) along with federal and local partners released its new vision for Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., “the nation’s preeminent ceremonial boulevard,” and three concept plans in March. The goal is to transform an overwhelming and underused avenue into a space that “prioritizes people over cars with inviting and inclusive public spaces.” The NCPC argues that with a new design, the 1.2-mile-long avenue could become a “signature outdoor event venue that could attract and support major national and international events.”

According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, the avenue was part of L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the District of Columbia and symbolically connects the White House, the executive branch of government, with the U.S. Capitol, the legislative branch. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson designated the avenue the official Presidential inaugural route. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, who complained about the pawn shops, X-rated movie houses, and liquor stores lining the avenue, created the President’s Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, which included landscape architect Dan Kiley, to design a broad ceremonial avenue that would improve the pedestrian experience. In the 1980s, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation further developed the parks and plazas along the avenue with landscape architecture firm Sasaki, establishing the unifying brown pavers that now define the space.

Today, eight lanes of roadways dominate the avenue, which make crossing the 160-to-400-foot-wide expanse feel like a chore. A central two-way cycle track fit in between vehicle lanes creates an angsty biking experience that requires vigilance about both pedestrians using crosswalks and vehicles on either sides. A 2018 District of Columbia transportation study found that 20 feet of the existing roadway could be allocated for other non-vehicle uses.

Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. / istockphoto.com, OlegAlbinsky
Pennsylvania Avenue Bike Lane, Washington, D.C. / Fletcher6, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Reducing roadways for vehicles creates a slew of opportunities to re-imagine the avenue. NCPC has offered three concepts to “right-size and realign the roadway to increase the amount of usable and flexible public space” and “devote more space for people, bicyclists, and transit and less space for cars.” All three concepts would accommodate the Presidential inaugural parade from the U.S. Capitol to the White House.

Elizabeth Miller, FASLA, director of physical planning at NCPC and project director of the initiative, said “the three concepts are really distinct themes that enable us to achieve the goals of transforming Pennsylvania Avenue into both a street for people and America’s stage, a venue for national and international events. These concepts are at at 10,000-foot level and explore how to achieve balance between a space that can be enjoyable on a day-to-day basis but also support events.”

The “Urban Capital” concept is a “complete street with spacious sidewalks, central travel and dedicated transit lanes, and a two-way cycle track on the south side of the street.” Of the three options, this is closest to what currently exists, but would enhance the public realm with an improved streetscape and offer a better cycling experience.

“Urban Capital” concept / NCPC, drawings by ZGF Architects

Much bolder, the “Linear Green” concept proposes a “curbless car-free urban linear park with a dedicated central transit way flanked by dedicated cycle tracks.” Given research shows that people are drawn to green space, this proposal could perhaps be the most successful in bringing more visitors to the avenue and keeping them there longer. This offers a Dutch-style woonerf avenue, a much safer and welcoming experience for both pedestrians and cyclists.

“Linear Green” concept / NCPC, drawings by ZGF Architects

The third “Civic Stage” concept proposes a “central pedestrian promenade flanked by a dedicated cycle track and shared travel lanes for cars and transit.” Here, a 52-feet-wide central strip in the middle of the avenue would offer pedestrians the broadest views up and down the avenue, but would require them to also navigate two sets of transit, vehicle, and bike lanes on either side. While the central promenade could be used for events or farmers markets, blazing hot DC summers could reduce use of a shade-less walking median.

“Civic Stage” concept / NCPC, drawings by ZGF Architects

NCPC also offers concepts for three “urban rooms” that would better connect the avenue to surrounding parks, memorials, museums, and businesses, while providing space for more temporary events.

Prior to the pandemic, more than 160 events were held each year on the avenue, but NCPC argues there could be even more with higher-quality public spaces better supported by retail and amenities, like public restrooms. They argue these urban rooms can help boost the downtown economy of Washington, D.C.

Proposed three urban rooms along Pennsylvania Avenue / NCPC, drawings by ZGF Architects

Through the proposals, NCPC offers ways to blur the boundaries between avenue, plaza, and park, creating a more seamless pedestrian experience. The concepts offer multiple reconfigurations of new public space in the many triangles where the avenue meets city streets. All add usable public green space and improve walkability and circulation.

“Linear Green” concept for Western End urban room / NCPC, drawings by ZGF Architects
“Civic stage” concept for Market Square urban room / NCPC, drawings by ZGF Architects
“Civic stage” concept for Eastern End urban room / NCPC, drawings by ZGF Architects

One point of contention has already arisen since the concepts were first released: Since the 1980s, a diverse mix of skateboarders have claimed the otherwise empty, shade-less Freedom Plaza across from Pershing Park. Though their use of the plaza is technically illegal, some argue they enliven an underused space. Many skateboarders travel from out of state to experience Pennsylvania Avenue, bringing a vitality to an otherwise unloved plaza. According to The Washington Post, “generations of skateboarders have traveled to the plaza to connect with other skaters, pull off tricks, and record videos to mark their spot in skateboard lore.”

To preserve Freedom Plaza as a skating mecca, the skateboarders have created an online petition that has received some 11,000 signatures to date. Ensuring space for them in the future on one of America’s most important avenues would send a true message of inclusion.

Miller explained that public comments will shape future concepts and designs, which will then be returned to the public for additional review. More developed ideas may arise from a mix of multiple concepts. While realizing the entire vision could take a decade, NCPC hopes to initiate near-term pilots and programs to test out ideas.

Explore the concepts and make your voice heard. NCPC asks for comments through July 29.

New Public Art Gives Soul to the 11th Street Bridge Park

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

In a few years, the 11th Street Bridge Park will span the Anacostia River, finally realizing the ambitious vision to bring both sides of Washington, D.C. together through art, landscape architecture, and a shared commitment to equitable development. As the project nears final design and the construction process is set to begin, four new works of public art were commissioned by a team of local residents, landscape architects, and public art curators. According to Scott Kratz, senior vice president, Building Bridges Across the River and director of 11th Street bridge park project, these art works “help embellish the park’s soul and ensure it will be reflective of the community.”

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

Through over a thousand public meetings about the bridge park, the team, which includes landscape architecture firm OLIN and architecture firm OMA, heard that residents want to see public art integrated into the project. “For us, public art is a key strategy for amplifying the voice of the community,” Kratz said.

The team that selected the artworks included a local high school student, an 82-year-old nearby resident, OLIN, OMA, Forecast Public Art, and D.C.-based artist Irfana Jetha Noorani.

OLIN and OMA were also engaged early in the process to ensure the public art works would be “deeply integrated” into the bridge. “We didn’t want to just do plop art,” Kratz said. The design team worked closely with the artists to site the works and will continue to partner with them on design, installation, and maintenance.

The bridge park team only accepted submissions from artists with D.C. area connections. Out of 60 entries, four women artists from the D.C. area were selected. Each artist received a stipend for their submissions and then will receive an additional $15,000 – $50,000 to create and install the work.

Baltimore artist Becky Borlan created Biophilia, a 10-foot wide disc comprised of “overlapping mirrored cut-outs” inspired by the “native and non-native plant life” that grows along the Anacostia River edge. “Despite hundreds of years of human intervention, this wild flora continues to populate the banks of the Anacostia,” Borlan said. “I am fascinated by its resilience and the multitude of forms that these plants embody.” The disc will be installed under the bridge, near the Anacostia side, and be lit at night.

Biophilia by Becky Borlan / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Biophilia by Becky Borlan / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

Mickey Demas and Nicole Bourgea’s mural Our Land will be found at the Navy Yard entrance wall and will reflect the “heritage of those living on and caring for DC’s land,” featuring members of the “native Piscataway Tribe among a field of tobacco plants, which hold historical and spiritual significance for the Tribe, and Ward 8 farmer, JJ Boone, propagating a native Paw Paw tree.”

Bourgea explained that “Our Land is a recognition of the people who have cared and are still caring for the land where the Bridge Park will be constructed.” “It is also a welcome to all communities to enjoy and protect our precious natural resources,” Demas added.

Our Land by Mickey Demas and Nicole Bourgea / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Our Land by Mickey Demas and Nicole Bourgea / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

At the peak of the span, OLIN and OMA designed a Hammock Grove, where visitors can enjoy views of the city and river.

11th Street Bridge Park / OMA+OLIN

There, the actual hammocks will be designed by D.C.-based artists Aliana Grace Bailey, Rhea Beckett, and Syreeta C. “Each hammock and its posts will boast a unique collage design honoring a theme, story, or place relevant to the city’s culture,” the bridge park team writes.

Hammock mock-up by Liz Faust / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

Syreeta C explained that “current residents already understand the value here. They need not be effaced.” Bailey said: “Our goal is for DC natives to feel seen. While community engagement enriches our process, we want to ensure that priority is also felt through the end product long-term.” “Our approach would preserve and reflect the District’s vibrancy and Black culture as mass development efforts persist,” Beckett added.

Syreeta C / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Aliana Grace Bailey / Danielle Finney, courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Rhea Beckett / courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

An additional Small Business Kiosk by The River East Design Center (REDC) will serve as a “multi-functional mobile unit” that supports the park’s comprehensive equitable development plan, which leverages the park development as a tool for local jobs creation, business development, and home ownership, and has resulted in more than $86 million in support to the surrounding community and $3.5 million in direct cash payments during the height of the pandemic.

A prototype of the mobile unit will be tested at the Anacostia River arts festival that the bridge park team organizes annually, Kratz explained. “The kiosk will help build a pipeline of Black entrepreneurs in the creative economy ready to engage when the park opens in early 2025,” the bridge park team notes.

Small Business Kiosk by The River East Design Center (REDC) / Anna McCorvey, courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park
Small Business Kiosk by The River East Design Center (REDC) / Anna McCorvey, courtesy of 11th Street Bridge Park

Earlier this year, the bridge park team announced a $400,000 commission — Anacostia’s Sunrise/Sunset Portals — by D.C.-based artists Martha Jackson Jarvis and Njena Surae Jarvis of Jackson Jarvis Studio, which will be sited near the Anacostia bridge landing. “The notion of energy and rhythm of a capillary wave as it moves across the river brings light, color, and reflection into the landscape and into the Anacostia community,” said Martha Jackson Jarvis.

Anacostia’s Sunrise/Sunset Portals / Jackson Jarvis Studio, OLIN, OMA

Future exhibition spaces are already being planned for the bridge cafe along with performances in the amphitheater, which is located on the landing on the Anacostia side of the bridge. Learn more about the near-final designs of the bridge park.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 16-30, 2022)

Umekita Park / Umekita 2nd Project Developers

GGN’s Design for Umekita Park in Osaka, Japan Is Under Construction – 06/27/2022, Archinect
“Seattle-based landscape architecture firm GGN’s design for an urban park in Osaka, Japan is now under construction. This public/private collaboration is focused on creating sustainable urban public spaces and ecosystems that realize quality of life improvements for residents and visitors to Osaka, Japan.”

Redesign Around Notre-Dame to Keep Tourists Moving and Lower Temperatures – 06/27/2022, New York Times
“The redesign envisions removing fencing to extend and merge parks around Notre-Dame, making neighboring streets more pedestrian-friendly and planting over 30 percent more vegetation in the area, including trees to provide additional shade.”

Where Did All of the Public Benches Go? – 06/27/2022, Arch Daily
“The design and functionality of public spaces in cities are always under scrutiny. But now a new issue and one that lives at a smaller scale is starting to arise- where did all of the public seats go?”

From Water Squares to Tidal Parks: Meet the Dutch Architects Redesigning Cities for Water – 06/24/2022, Fast Company
“At the core of De Urbanisten’s practice is the belief that landscape architecture can help mitigate climate change by moving away from obsolescent drainage systems and toward more natural approaches like rain gardens and permeable surfaces.”

California’s Largest Reservoirs at Critically Low Levels – Signaling a Dry Summer Ahead – 06/24/2022, The Guardian
“California’s two largest reservoirs are at critically low levels, signaling that the state, like much of the US west, can expect a searing, dry summer ahead.”

The Living City: Weaving Nature Back Into the Urban Fabric – 06/23/2022, Yale Environment 360
“Urban ecologist Eric Sanderson focuses on the natural history of cities. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why recovering and restoring streams, salt marshes, and woodlands should be a vital part of how cities adapt to climate change in the 21st century.”

He’s Turning Dodger Stadium into a World-Class Garden, One Native Plant at a Time – 06/23/2022, Sunset Magazine
“It took five years for Perea and his crew to wholly reimagine and replant the hillsides and concrete planters, and meet the requirements for official accreditation from Botanic Gardens Conservation International. But today, the former hodgepodge of geraniums and petunias, ivy and lantana is now home to dozens of California natives, dotted with succulents, complete with a ‘tequila garden’ brimming with spiky agaves.”

Climate-related Flooding and Drought Expected to Impact Millions of People and Cost World’s Major Cities $194 Billion Annually – 06/22/2022, C40 Cities
“C40 Cities has revealed new research quantifying the dire impacts of climate-driven drought and flooding on the world’s largest cities and its residents.”

Designer Julia Watson on Reaching the Age of the Symbiocene – 06/16/2022, Metropolis
“[Watson’s] 2019 book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, spotlighted nature-based infrastructures that have been honed over millennia, from the Living Root Bridges of the Khasis people in India to the floating island homes of the Ma’dan in Iraq, made from qasab reeds. As the creative world searches for planet-positive design solutions in the face of climate change, the book shows they have existed for centuries but have been overlooked.”

HGA and Nelson Byrd Woltz Complete Design Refresh at Monticello’s Burial Ground for Enslaved People – 06/16/2022, The Architect’s Newspaper
“The UNESCO World Heritage Site-designated mountaintop plantation was designed and inhabited by the third president of the United States from 1770 until his death in 1826. The Burial Ground serves as a final resting place for an estimated 40 enslaved African people who lived and toiled on the (originally) 5,000-acre plantation, cultivating tobacco and later wheat.”

A New Vision for the U.S. National Arboretum Melds Art and Science

National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Somehow, the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. remains under the radar despite attracting more than 700,000 visitors a year. Far on the east side of the city, it’s not accessible via the Metro and can feel treacherous to reach by bike or on foot. But a recent framework plan developed by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand promises to make the 451-acre treasure, which includes more than 29,000 plants of scientific value, a more accessible and valued place.

The only part of the U.S. Agriculture Research Service’s 94 research stations open to the public, the U.S. National Arboretum was formed through an Act of Congress in 1927 and opened to the public in 1959. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed a law appropriating $300,000 to buy land, including Mt. Hamilton, the site’s 230-foot peak. Additional land purchases made in the 1930s and 1940s brought the research facility to its current size. The Arboretum now borders the diverse, gentrifying communities of Gateway, Ivy City, and Carver/Langston.

U.S. National Arboretum 1937 Map / U.S. National Arboretum

In 2019, Reed Hilderbrand finalized work on their new framework plan, which won the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). The plan was financed by the Friends of the National Arboretum, which is now raising funds to implement aspects of the plan along with a new National Bonsai & Penjing Museum for which Reed Hilderbrand also created design concepts.

In a tour of the arboretum as part of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)‘s free What’s Out There public tours, Doug Reed, FASLA, a founding principal at Reed Hilderbrand, and Richard T. Olsen, Ph.D, director of the arboretum, interwove stories about the research center’s design and scientific legacies with hopeful visions for its future.

Over a glass of white wine at the visitor center, Olsen set the stage, explaining how the arboretum has played an important role in the history of landscape architecture and scientific research into the plant world.

Looking out at the garden where landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden is said to have invented the New American Garden style, which is characterized by artful layers of native plants, in the 1980s, Olsen said “this idea of focusing on American perennials in garden design” hadn’t existed before.

Another more recent garden adjacent to the visitor center by landscape architects Claudia West, Intl. ASLA, and Thomas Rainer, ASLA, co-founders of Phyto Studio and co-authors of the influential book Planting in a Post-Wild World, further advanced contemporary ecological garden design. “Their garden is designed to take care of itself; the plants are allowed to move around. It’s a scientific planting design rooted in ecosystem knowledge,” Olsen said.

Fascinating tidbits like these are largely lost to the millions of visitors to D.C. each year, because the arboretum isn’t on their must-see list. “When I take a taxi to the arboretum from Reagan National Airport, I have yet to meet a driver who knows where the arboretum is,” Reed rued.

U.S. National Arboretum in relation to the National Mall / Reed Hilderbrand

“Our goal with the framework plan is to make the arboretum much better known, to open up the space to the public. There are unique ecological systems but also cultural aspects. It can be a marriage of science, art, and, nature.”

As we boarded the tour trolley, Olsen explained how in 1953 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service was formed, and the arboretum became part of this system. In addition to teaching visitors about trees, the arboretum is also a scientific research facility that supports the ornamental tree industry. For example, Olsen said a “third of all crepe myrtles sold in the U.S. are arboretum introductions or derived from them.”

The Arboretum is essentially a living museum. The seeds of many trees like Oaks and Magnolias can’t be stored in drawers or freezers for long-term, so instead the Arboretum must keep the tree DNA intact in live trees. Visitors can marvel at the collections of boxwoods, azaleas, lilacs, dwarf conifers, and ferns, along with the rare Asian plants, but these are also working scientific specimens.

In their extensive research as part of the planning process, Reed noted that they found an earlier property map from 1863, which showed the site’s hydrological systems, cropland and orchards. The rural trails through the landscape influenced the roads that were developed for the arboretum. “There have always been human and ecological imprints on this land,” Reed said.

U.S. National Arboretum 1863 Property Plan / U.S. National Arboretum

While the arboretum was included in the McMillan Plan for the District of Columbia, there was no further detail. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of senior, was involved in early planning. A framework plan created in 1948 guided the development of the site, with a further update by Sasaki in 1978, and then five or more planning efforts over the ensuing decades.

Reed’s team found that the landscape is made up of “wooded hills, meadows, dendritic ravines, and agrarian fields,” so restoring the original, diverse character of the landscape would be key to creating deeper stories and connections for visitors. The firm also wants to restore the connection with the Anacostia River, which flows along the east side of the arboretum, past the Asian collections. “We want to evolve the landscape so it’s more clear and coherent and better introduces people to the arboretum.”

U.S. National Arboretum Framework Plan / Reed Hilderbrand

Coherence will also arise from solving the many access and circulation issues.

One “70-year-old problem” is that the District of Columbia government didn’t follow early plans from the 50s and create additional connections into the arboretum straight off of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Olsen explained. “Visitors now arrive at the back door,” Reed said, through R Street, which cuts through a residential community, only after they have navigated the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, a major artery.

“This creates a larger wayfinding issue,” Reed argued. A key part of the new framework plan is to re-orient the entrance to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, with the idea of capturing more vehicles more easily.

Once drivers arrive, they will be steered towards a new, expanded visitor center where they will be invited to leave their car behind. Additional bicycle and pedestrian access improvements are also planned.

Reed Hilderbrand’s plan will center administrative and scientific efforts in the core of the arboretum, enlarging visitor services areas and scientific educational experiences, so that the story of the science can be better told.

U.S. National Arboretum Framework Plan / Reed Hilderbrand

At the same time, the plan calls for re-opening a gate along M Street and Maryland Avenue, near Carver Terrace, which was sealed off in the 1980s due to the explosion of drug-related crime. “We are working with the city to re-open this gate and provide more equitable access to the surrounding community,” Olsen said. “It will take funding.”

Back in the early days of the arboretum, vehicle drivers would travel off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, enter Maryland Avenue, and access the arboretum through grand gates. Those gates now appear as relics encircled by opportunistic plants.

Abandoned gate and entrance at U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Reed Hilderbrand plans on shrinking the parking lot facing the gates and expand the central Ellipse Meadow, the centerpiece of the arboretum, to extend south. “We will remake Ellipse Road as a pedestrian path and reconfigure the drives in this part of the campus.” Communities cut off from the park will soon be able to enter and greeted with an expanded meadow.

Inside the campus, the current circulatory system of the arboretum is highly car-centric, with nine miles of paved roads and a number of large parking lots. All of these impervious surfaces means that a sizeable chunk of the Arboretum’s $14 million annual budget goes to paying storwmater run-off fees to the District government.

So the new plan will remove some roads and make others permeable gravel, transform wide two-way roads into one-way routes, and scale back some large parking lots. The goal is to shift to inner and outer circuits.

Drivers will be invited to parallel park along these roads, but there will still be some larger parking lots for peak seasons, which is spring and fall. “In total, there will be 40 fewer acres of parking,” Reed said, which will help the arboretum significantly cut back on those stormwater fees.

The tour trolley then stopped at the Asian Collection. Trees for the Japanese collection were gathered after Word War II; for the Korean collection during the 1950s; and for the Chinese collection in the late 1980s, after the country opened again to Americans. Designed by landscape architect Perry Wheeler, the collection takes visitors down pathways to the Anacostia River.

Asian Collection at U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green

Here, Olsen described the great lengths scientists have gone to in order to gather specimens. One garden features a rare Chinese tree from the Camilia family that required a scientist to travel through a hillside latrine in rural China to secure its seeds. Beyond determined exploration and collection efforts like this, arboretum researchers study tree taxonomies, genetics, breeding, and virology.

Rare Chinese tree specimen / Jared Green

The tour ended at the arboretum’s heart: the interior corinthian columns of the original U.S. Capitol Building, which British garden designer Russell Page and landscape architecture firm EDAW arranged on a hilltop within the expansive Ellipse Meadow in the late 1980s.

National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
National Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum / Jared Green
U.S. National Arboretum Ellipse Meadow / Jared Green

Experiencing the setting sun in the meadow was an uncommon pleasure given the arboretum’s usual closing hour of 5pm. Hopefully, if the arboretum’s new plan is fully realized, more visitors will be able to discover both the splendor of the landscape and the science, and hours will be extended for summer evening reveries.

Support the Friends of the National Arboretum’s fundraising efforts and also check out TCLF’s What’s Out There Guide to Washington, D.C. online and print versions.