Interview with Toody Maher on Using Parks to Build Community

Toody Maher / SF Gate
Toody Maher / SF Gate


Toody Maher is the founder and executive director of Pogo Park. She is an artist, inventor, and entrepreneur and lives in Bay Area, California.

In the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California, which is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country, you’ve created an exciting model, which combines community development, child development, play, and parks. What are the essential elements of a Pogo Park?

Any public space can be transformed into a Pogo Park. In essence, a Pogo Park is an amazing place, a magical place for children to play. There are five key elements. First of all, a Pogo Park must be staffed. You need someone there who clean the park, welcome folks as they come in, and make it a safe and welcoming gathering place for the community. Second, there needs to be an office there. The third is a rich play environment. We have to get away from plastic, static play equipment. Experts on play talk about how kids need loose parts and environments they can manipulate, so they can build their own things and explore. The key feature of a Pogo Park is a super-rich play environment. The fourth element is just basic amenities — a place to sit in the shade, a bathroom, and running water. And the last is to make it a hub of the community. We have the book mobile, farmer’s market, and visits from the National Park Service who want to show the kids a ranger tour. We’re just the place. We are the community hub.

If you’re knowledgeable about Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language, that’s the Bible for us. There’s certain things that you can do that are essential, but you can do it 500 or 5,000 ways.

The community were co-designers of Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Park. How did this work?

To give you some background: Elm Playlot was an existing park for 70 years, but it failed. The city has renovated it three times, and the latest in 2009 cost $300,000. We begged the city not to do it, but they went ahead because they had a grant. Within a week, somebody tried to burn it down.

Pogo Park started with a core team of eight: the Elm Playlot Action Committee (EPAC). The first person I met was Carmen Lee, who lives right next door to the park. I just went around knocking on doors and meeting folks. There were people who wouldn’t open the door. I would show up each day and they wouldn’t even say hello. From 2009 to 2016 the composition of EPAC has changed. It went from eight to six to ten to twelve to fourteen to seven. All of the members have deep ties to the Iron Triangle: they were born there, they live there. But the members of the same core team who started at the beginning have been through all seven years of the project.

What’s great is the power of incremental change. We avoided the usual process: the park fails, then you helicopter in, and, in one week’s time, there’s a new park, and then the mayor comes, and you cut the ribbon, and the moment that everyone leaves — the moment the 76-piece marching back leaves — the whole thing goes back to what it was, so nothing is really transformed. As some residents say, you can’t put a mink coat on a skunk. By coming in and putting this thing down, it doesn’t mean lives are going to change. Transformation needs to be deeper.

EPAC started working with the residents to reclaim the park. Before we got our $2 million state park grant to redo the park, I told the team about Burning Man in the Nevada desert, how folks build this mini city in a week. I said: “let’s do Burning Man in the Iron Triangle!” We went to Home Depot and bought a $2,000 3-foot fence and built a fence around Elm Playlot to claim the boundary. We came in each day and cleaned the park, so it was super clean. We brought in a shipping container we got from the Port of Richmond and built a little office inside the shipping container we could open each day. We put out our play materials and made our enriched play space. We rented a porta potty, which we covered in beautiful plants and artwork. And if somebody needed to go to the bathroom, they’d come up to somebody on our staff and we would let them in. Folks would come just to go to the bathroom, because the porta potty was tricked out. We bought the house next to the park for $50,000. And got a $300 fridge off Craigslist and became an official distribution point for the school free summer lunches. We served 9,000 meals one summer. We got into the space and claimed it.

Going back to how to involve the community: Elm Playlot came alive because people from the neighborhood went and worked there each day. They cleaned it, built things, or served as staff. As folks drive by, they could see something was changing. Everybody started to come by because they were like, “What you all doing next? Oh, this so great.” One thing I learned: If the community makes the changes themselves, then the change is deeper and felt more widely.

Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille
Elm Playlot / KQED, Nancy DeVille

It wasn’t just like there was a one-week charrette. We did a five year one! As the great park designer, Susan Goltsman, FASLA, with MIG in Berkeley, said: “Great playgrounds are in a constant state of change.” They can’t just be static. To be alive, parks need to evolve. Pogo Park has been a living charrette.

Elm Playlot / Pogo Park
Elm Playlot / Pogo Park

How did the process of 3-D prototyping the park design work? And why do you think it was better than the typical approach with charrettes, maps, renderings?

The real language needed to communicate design is the opposite of what you need to understand a landscape architecture plan on paper. With a 3-D model, you get to see what’s coming in life size. You’re actually experiencing it. If we want to put a tree somewhere, we’ll just go out and buy a tree in a five gallon bucket and put it there, so people can actually say, “Oh, a tree’s there.” They can walk around and see spaces.

I’ve noticed that when I’m dealing with some landscape architects and designers, they come out with the dimensions of what something should be right away. They’ll say, “Oh, well, why don’t we put the door at three feet and this at two feet.” And they work all by numbers. But our approach is: “Do not impose a number.” First of all, mark it, and when it feels right, measure. That is the measurement that goes on the paper. So many times when design is done on paper, it looks good on paper, because it’s all math. But when you build it, there’s so many little things that were off. The spacing is usually off. The only way you can really get spacing is to do it.

Pogo Park involved the community in the actual construction of the park, paying neighbors of the park to build it. How did the process of co-developing the park with the community work?

We have put over $1 million in wages and contracts into the Iron Triangle. Everyone expects people who are poor and have no job to come in and volunteer. Everywhere I went, people said: “Oh, Toody, you and your volunteers.” No. Everyone was paid for their contribution.

We were also blessed to partner with Scientific Art Studio, which happens to have a 2-acre fabrication studio six blocks from our park in the Iron Triangle, to build the park. The guy who runs it — Ron Holthuysen — is a world famous designer of children’s play spaces. He’s the bomb. He just did a $3.5 million new playground for the San Francisco Zoo. His belief is that children must be free to run wild and to explore.

Ron helped us figure out how to work with a playground safety inspector. We were building custom-made, artisanal play elements. Every step of the way we made sure we conformed with the safety regulations. He set up a studio for us in his studio where he acted as our training wheels, empowering local people to do it for themselves.

It was this holy trinity. First, we had community residents. Second, we had the city of Richmond, which is very entrepreneurial and forward thinking. They gave us the green light to do this radical thing: to try and build a park with the community by hand. And, third, we had Ron from Scientific Arts. However, the residents were the most powerful force. All we did was create a system where someone could think up an idea and then just do it. Residents started getting into it, saying things like: “Well, we should put a bench there.” So then we would just go to Ron’s shop and build a bench and bring it back. Residents started gaining a lot of confidence by thinking, doing.

Play element construction / Pogo Park
Play element construction / Pogo Park

The numbers who have been employed with Pogo Park over the past decade is around 110-120 community residents. We’ve had probably another 250 who come and work for two weeks. But we primarily pour our money into our core staff. We have 10 people on the community resident team now that work between 15 hours a week and full-time. And they’re paid between $16 and $22 an hour. Those working full-time have full health, dental, and vision benefits. All of these people have never had insurance before. Pogo Park has definitely helped transform the lives of the key folks on our team. And we now have $1.5 million in contracts to design and build more parks in Richmond, too.

Park construction / Pogo Park
Park construction / Pogo Park

About 25 percent of our team does cleaning and maintenance. It’s a lot of work, because you’re cleaning not only the park, but also the streets around the park. When people come into our block, they can just feel it, because the streets are all clean, and there’s all these trees planted. I mean we clean up. Last year, we had 15,000 kids sign in at our sites. And these kids play hard, so things get broken. You have to replace the wooden planks and other things. When things break things, we take them to a work shop where we have a team. Our maintenance team can also build things.

About 50 percent are employed in running the park. We have a park host who comes in somebody who comes into the office every day. They put out all the play stuff and open up the bathrooms. They’re the ones scheduling all the programs Monday through Saturday. The other 25 percent does outreach and design for The Yellow Brick Road, plants trees, plant trees, and individual and group skills training. They train community members on how to use email, resolve conflicts, speak in public, etc.

How do you generate deep community buy in and involvement where others have failed?

We just show up every day and keep showing up. Most folks come into a community for a year or two and then leave. And then things go back to what they were. So the community doesn’t trust new initiatives, because they too will leave. It’s taken us nine years of work in this neighborhood, showing up Monday through Friday and not leaving, to gain that trust.

Some 77,500 neighborhood kids use Elm Playlot and Harbor-8 Parks annually. What do these places try to do about works and what doesn’t in terms of play? And, specifically, what’s needed to create a safe, welcoming playground in a neighborhood that has a lot of crime?

If you go into any of these neighborhoods, the first thing is you have got to staff the park. What makes it safe is there’s someone who’s there watching out to make sure the park is clean, safe, and welcoming. Second, parks must be “bespoke,” custom made for the particular neighborhood, so they can then be woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. The park has got to have soul. Most of these new plastic playgrounds that are plopped in from a catalogue just don’t have soul.

Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park
Harbor 8 Park playground / Pogo Park

The design of the playground has to be generated from the inside out. The community has to be involved and figure out how it’s going to weave into the neighborhood. Children’s play is very complicated. It’s the mother’s breast milk of healthy development. Parks departments typically put in static play equipment that’s only good for physical play. You go up a ladder and slide down the slide and then go on the swing. But there’s all kinds of play: cognitive play, linguistic play, and imaginative, creative play. We have to create playgrounds that meet all the play needs of kids, not just physical needs. That’s why we say Pogo Park is an enriched play environment.


How have the new parks helped resolve community conflict and build inter-community trust? And what do you think still needs to happen?

Parks provide a community space for every human being on the planet. We’re social beings and gravitate toward public spaces where we can be with other people. Just claiming and holding this space, it becomes a sacred watering hole for the community. That has helped build the trust of the community, because it’s a place where people can actually connect in a real way with other residents and families.

You can’t just put the bones of the park down. You can’t just come into a neighborhood like the Iron Triangle and just plop something down and leave. You have bones but you also have to spirit. The spirit is programming, which makes the park come to life.

Now you’re rethinking another form of community space, streets. A project now in the works is the Yellow Brick Road, a “safe, green and clean” route for walking and biking that connects neighborhood schools, parks, transportation, shopping. Pogo Park organized another preview of a full scale 3-D prototype for the community to try out. What is your approach for designing, building, and maintaining this Yellow Brick Road?

Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road rendering / Pogo Park

We used the same 3-D modeling language we used for the parks, but translated it into the streets. We had to slow down traffic on the corners of the park, as we had some 15,000 people sign into the park last year, including thousands of kids. We worked with some of the top transportation engineers to design a new roundabout. We figured out what the dimensions needed to be and then mocked up a 3-D roundabout model. In the middle of the roundabout there is a hand-carved, eight-foot-tall totem pole the Pogo Park community team carved. Over two days, we let the neighborhood, police, and fire fighters actually drive through it.

We’ve spoken to others who have done 3-D models out of the street, but they never opened theirs to actual traffic. Neighbors could see what is going to be built rather than see it on a piece of paper. They could then add their thoughts right away. The community team, who are people the neighborhood knows, facilitated. Many neighbors, police, and fire fighters came up and thanked us so much for this. The 3-D models really got the community and city involved in a new way. We received a grant from the California department of transportation, and the Yellow Brick Road opened in January.

Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road demonstration / Richmond Confidential
Yellow Brick Road / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road totem pole and roundabout / Pogo Park
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org
Yellow Brick Road opening, January 2016 / Kaboom.org

 

Pokémon Go Adds a New Layer to Public Spaces

Pershing Square Park as depicted in Pokémon Go
Pershing Square Park as depicted in Pokémon Go

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “nature-based recreation” has decreased 25 percent in the last 40 years. The average American now spends only one half of a day per week outdoors. Furthermore, kids now spend an average of only 30 minutes or less outdoors each day, half as much as 20 years ago. Is Pokémon Go — the explosively popular game app released worldwide this month — a way to get adults and kids off their sofas and into parks and other public spaces?

After a couple of days happily playing the game, my answer is a qualified yes. The qualification: it is possible to play a circumscribed version of the game while sitting at your desk or sofa. But the game is really designed to get you out into streets, parks, and plazas. It got me out into two public places — the town square in downtown Rockville, Maryland, and Pershing Square Park in Washington, D.C. — where I had different yet intriguing experiences.

Pokémon Go, which may be downloaded on iOS and Android devices, is a free, location-based augmented reality game in which players capture adorable-looking creatures called Pokémon. The game is played not from a comfy sofa, but out in the real world.

The app provides a map of the player’s real-world surroundings. Players move outside in order to find Pokémon and capture them using Poké-balls. The map provides a handy way to locate Poké-stops, which are found in such public spaces as public art installations, historical markers, and monuments and contain additional Poké-balls and other items. Poké-gyms, where players unleash their Pokémon to fight, are also located near prominent local businesses and other attractions.

I spent my first afternoon playing the game at Rockville Town Square, a 12-acre suburban public plaza that opened in 2007, part of a larger master plan to create a “daytime, evening and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.” Not only is it home to shops and restaurants, the square also includes a number of Poké-stops. The large crowd who congregated there on a Sunday afternoon included many Pokémon Go players, smartphones in hand, searching for virtual goodies hidden in the colorful public art.

Rockville Town Square via Better Cities & Towns / Dan Cunningham
Rockville Town Square via Better Cities & Towns / Dan Cunningham

The game turned into a communal experience as we chatted with strangers along the wide sidewalks. We all certainly benefited from Rockville’s cohesive pedestrian policies and were able to crisscross the square and surrounding streets safely with little interference from traffic. While it may be facile to urge landscape architects to create Pokémon-friendly landscapes, they should continue to design high-quality and lasting public spaces that accommodate ever-evolving recreation preferences and pedestrian safety.

A couple of days later, I felt the urge to play the game at D.C.’s Pershing Square Park, a multi-level park designed by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners that opened in 1981. It features a monument to General John J. Pershing as well as a bronze sculpture of an eagle by Lorenzo Ghiglieri — both, unsurprisingly, are Poké-stops. I spent half an hour in the park on a Thursday afternoon and quickly gathered items from the statues (this is done on the app by spinning a photo of the public art or feature).

Pokémon in Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.
Pokémon in Pershing Park, Washington, D.C.

After capturing these Pokémon, I found myself with nothing to do. The park was seemingly devoid of Pokémon, no matter where I stood, so I gave up and sat down to enjoy the calm retreat from the noisy traffic streaming on all sides. Tree branches shook in the breeze, and a parade of Falun Dafa supporters marched by. One woman paused in front of the Pershing monument, not to admire its historical significance, but to retrieve items for the game. Once she finished, she quickly walked away.

Later, a family of tourists arrived with cameras. They stood in front of the monument and photographed it and each other as they spoke in their native language. Clearly they were savoring a moment to be remembered later — a traditional experience of a public space that still serves a time-honored purpose.

My experiences with Pokémon Go, and observations of other players, show that the game may not fit the traditional definition of outdoor recreation, but it certainly creates enthusiasm for exploring your environment and engaging in physical exercise.

And perhaps this new enthusiasm for augmented reality games can be tapped to generate more creative designs of public spaces that integrate real and game worlds. Similar games are sure to come in the future.

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

Capture
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Conservation: Geniuses of Place Nature.com, 7/6/16
“Ethan Carr traces the arc of influence in landscape creation and preservation from ‘Capability’ Brown to Frederick Law Olmsted and the US National Park Service.”

Playful Variation on Ring Forms Performance Space at Ragdale in Lake ForestChicago Tribune, 7/8/16
“There’s something about a ring, the kind that gathers people in a circle. From Stonehenge to the layered-stone ‘council rings’ of landscape architect Jens Jensen, circular open-air structures have long liberated us from the straight lines of everyday life and created places for shared experience.”

Imagine if the 2 Freeway Ended in a Brilliantly Colored, Eco-Smart ParkThe Los Angeles Times, 7/11/16
“There are two ways you can look at the long spur of the 2 Freeway as it runs south from the 5 Freeway and descends into Silver Lake and Echo Park.”

20th Anniversary of the Birmingham Master Plan: City Planners Created an Industry Standard Planetizen, 7/13/16
“It has been 20 years since the city of Birmingham, Michigan approved the Birmingham 2016 Master Plan. Robert J. Gibbs, one of the planners on a team that included Andrés Duany, describes the decisions and process that contributed to the plan.”

Montreal Trades Expressway for “Urban Boulevard” Next City, 7/11/16
“Montreal has begun tearing down its part of a mid-century expressway to make way for a greener, more transit- and pedestrian-friendly boulevard, reports the Montreal Gazette.”

Central Park, Bucolic but Aging, Is in a Quest for $300 Million The New York Times, 7/13/16
“Belvedere Castle in Central Park looks indestructible, a fortress of stone presiding over the Great Lawn. But the 144-year-old-building leaks like a sieve.”

Landscapes & Gardens: The Works of Hargreaves Associates

Landscape & Gardens / ORO Editions
Landscape & Gardens / ORO Editions

“Gardens, parks, landscapes – these diverse scales and intensities of cultured nature all play important roles in our lives. This small collection is a provocative visual reminder of the enduring design potential of landscape space as public space,” writes Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor of architecture at Syracuse University, in the introduction to Hargreaves AssociatesLandscapes & Gardens, a small but rich landscape architecture monograph on the work of Hargreaves Associates.

Hargreaves Associates, which won the 2016 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture, has worked in the U.S. and abroad for decades. Their principals — George Hargreaves, FASLA, Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA, and Gavin McMillan, International ASLA — have put together a compelling case for well-designed public landscapes wherever they may fit, like the recently-constructed Crescent Park in New Orleans or the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, both of which emerged from degraded brownfields.

Crescent Park, New Orleans /
Crescent Park, New Orleans / Johanna Liebe
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London /
Queen Elizabeth Park, London / George Hargreaves

As Czerniak contends, “Design matters. The design premises the projects employ offer glimpses into many of the larger themes that have consistently produced the firm’s successful work; a firm with an international reputation for its advanced design, technical expertise, public engagement, and the ability to get projects built in the context of complex politics and tough economics.”

The book is a mostly-photographic argument for increasing public investment in landscapes, parks, and gardens in the era of the public-private partnership in which parks are expected to raise lots of money to cover their own operating expenses and maintenance. But Hargreaves himself also writes eloquently about the subject:

“A successful park has loyal followers—people who identify a park with their culture, their region, their city, and their daily lives. This identification may be due to a particular activity in the park, but more often it is due to the gestalt of the overall park experience—said another way, the look and feel of the park. Landscapes can inspire through their visual qualities, tactile qualities, and contrasting or unifying qualities. They can inspire through their sustainability or their habitat creation, and they can inspire by providing human interaction with plants and wildlife. Through time it is the landscape that is remembered and privileged much more than income-producing programming. If we can produce landscapes for public space that embody these inspirational qualities, it will not matter when the programmed activities evolve, disappear (such as the 2012 Olympic games), or increase. History has shown us that, if it is done richly and robustly, a landscape can last for hundreds of years.”

Haihe riverfront park, China /
Haihe riverfront park, China / Zhuomin Peng

The book is organized by landscape design features, with brief chapters on striations, walls, islands, ribbons, along with underlying, core elements of landscape architecture, such as native plants, rain, and background / foreground.

Landscapes & Gardens clearly demonstrates that Hargreaves Associates can create memorable and immersive experiences in their “quiet, green spaces.” For example, anyone walking through Crissy Field in San Francisco is likely to remember the sense of tranquility that remarkable place engenders.

Crissy Field, San Francisco /
Crissy Field, San Francisco / George Waters

For Hargreaves, the challenge has always been how to balance “richness and robustness” in his firms’ public spaces, and within them, the quieter gardens. He says public spaces must both be designed to hold up to crowds but also offer moments for introspection, for enjoying the plants:

“Embedded within the public’s desire for green parks is a desire for gardens. Public gardens cannot be fragile in their design or placement. Like the landscapes they inhabit, public gardens must be robust. They will not receive personalized maintenance, nor can they be subject to the overrunning pedestrian flows of large events or major gatherings. In addition to the selection of hardy plants and protection by slight grade separations or low barriers, the design of these gardens should be bold and somewhat simple, while retaining the very qualities that we enjoy so much—constant and changing colors, differing plant structures, and textures that change with the seasons or that carry the garden through winter. Gardens can inspire, provide refreshment, incite joy, or simply provide a provocative landscape context; as John Dixon Hunt wrote in regard to the landscape, ‘The garden is the highest aspiration of our culture.'”

Stanford University campus, California /
Stanford University campus, California / Kyle Jeffers

The book, however, doesn’t go into any details on how the firm has consistently overcome political, financial, and ecological obstacles to achieve those well-designed public spaces. A few brief case studies or interviews with clients could have given a glimpse into how Hargreaves has successfully navigated institutional and financial challenges. Still, Landscapes & Gardens is a thoughtful effort from one of the few truly global landscape architecture firms.

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

stavros-niarchos-foundation-cultural-center-snfcc-renzo-piano-athens-greece-national-opera-library-kallithea-architecture-landscaping-park-connections-city-sea_dezeen_1568_31
Stavros Niarchos Cultural Centre/Dezeen

Frank Gehry’s Controversial L.A. River Plan Gets Cautious, Low-Key RolloutThe Los Angeles Times, 6/18/16
“The design team working with architect Frank Gehry on a controversial new master plan for the Los Angeles River has begun to introduce its work to the public — but in a noticeably cautious and low-key way.”

It’s Playtime on the Bayou TrailThe Houston Chronicle, 6/24/16
“In a serene spot on the north bank of Buffalo Bayou Park – next door to the under-renovation Jamail Skatepark at the Sabine Street Bridge – the 1.5-acre play park is designed to bring natural and social ecologies together for young children.”

Landscape Architect James Corner Hopes His Public Square Design Promotes Democracy, Civic HarmonyCleveland Plain Dealer, 6/24/16
“‘Cities that double down and invest in well-designed public spaces – especially public spaces done right and to a high standard of care – are investing in their own success,’ Corner told the crowd Thursday. ‘Design matters and makes a huge difference.'”

Urban Parks: From Dumping Grounds to Centers of Energy The Huffington Post, 6/27/16
“A major initiative by New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver cogently explored at the recent and fascinating Parks Without Borders Summit is to make parks more porous and accessible and, by extension, to foster park equity, the idea that all parks are well maintained.”

Renzo Piano Completes Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center on a Huge Artificial HillDezeen, 6/28/16
“Renzo Piano has finished a major new park, library and theatre complex in Athens, following one of the largest donations for a cultural building project in history.”

A Bike Path for the Entire East Coast CityLab, 6/28/16
“The East Coast Greenway Alliance has been working since 1991 to connect the whole geography of the Atlantic seaboard with protected bike paths. So far, 850 miles of trail have been designated as Greenway. The project is about 31 percent complete.”

Open Street Networks: Gateways to Change

Ciclovia, Bogota / Kiwi crossfit odyssey
Ciclovia, Bogota / Kiwi crossfit odyssey

Open street initiatives temporarily close networks of streets to motor vehicles, allowing people to walk, bike, skate, dance, and hang out. These initiatives enable things that “usually feel illegal or unsafe,” said Mike Lydon, a founder of Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit. But they also open up communities to new opportunities to improve their pedestrian and bicycle networks. And according to Lydon, “people love open streets.”

It has long been assumed that Bogotá, Colombia, started the movement with their Ciclovía in the mid-1970s, but Lydon argued that Seattle’s Bicycle Sundays, which started in 1965, may have been the first open street initiative. Still, Ciclovía was the first large-scale open street network, given some 70 miles of street are shut down every Sunday. Now many Central and South American cities offer the same — at 15, 20, or 70 miles. For these cities, open streets is about equity. “Everyone: rich, poor, old, young, disabled can participate in an unplanned activity together.”

Ciclovia, Bogota / Colombia government
Ciclovia, Bogota / Colombia government

There are now over 130 initiatives all over the U.S. While they may differ on the length of route or frequency, they all reap positive benefits. According to his research, on open street days, cafes, restaurants, and other retail stores see increased business, traffic falls and transit use increases. In many of these communities, open streets have resulted in long-term investment in more sustainable streets. They can be transformational experiences that “open up a gateway to introduce pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements.”

In Miami, where Lydon lives, there has been a 180-degree change in just two years — from a city with one of the worst biking experiences, to a city in the top 30 for bicyclists. He pointed to the city’s open street initiative as the catalyst for the transformation. “It opened up breathing room, politically,” showing people, businesses, and politicians what change would be like without committing first. After that experiment, the city later passed an ambitious city-wide 2030 bicycling master plan.

Miami 2030 bicycle master plan / Street Plans Collaborative
Miami 2030 bicycle master plan / Street Plans Collaborative

And in Burlington, Vermont, where his firm now consults with the city’s transportation department, city officials recently used open streets to test out their complete street vision, so people could experience the proposed network of bike lanes protected by greenery. “The lesson from Burlington is you can connect open streets with the planning process and work through all possibilities through real-time demonstrations.” The test was positively received by the 10,000 who tried it out, and the 55-mile complete street and bike plan is now underway.

Burlington, VT bike network demonstration / Street Plans Collaborative
Burlington, VT bike network demonstration / Street Plans Collaborative

Here are some of the elements that make an open street initiative successful: “Route planning is key. You don’t want to send people up hills.” Open street planners should brand the event and route and identify a local sponsor that makes sense, like a gym. It’s important that the route crosses “different neighborhoods, rich and poor.” It should be fairly easy to get to the open streets — they should be in a downtown area, where there are large populations and lots of neighborhoods connect in. Local businesses need to be brought in early. “Meet with local merchants and encourage street-level marketing.” Volunteers help keep costs down and they help shepherd people new to the concept.

He also pointed out some issues to watch out for: “If the road is too short, it will get packed quickly, so the route needs to be at least 2-5 miles to accrue benefits.” For example, he said Oklahoma City’s open street route is too compact, so it ended up being like a “street fair or festival.” One of the biggest costs at first will be paying overtime for police. In Miami, they spent $35,000 for the police to control traffic on one open street day, so it’s important to “simplify the route so you don’t need a big detail.” Lastly, more benefits accrue the more often the open streets happens. In Paris, they have it down to a science, so they can do away with hiring police and simply pull out the signs that block streets every Sunday.

Pierre Bélanger Examines the Mining Industry at Venice Biennale

extraction-exhibit
A visitor to Extraction watches a video displayed in the ground / copyright Laurian Ghinitoiu, via Arch Daily

One of the first national architecture pavilions to be curated by a landscape architect debuted last month at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The Canadian exhibit, entitled Extraction, is curated by landscape architect Pierre Bélanger, ASLA, who is also associate professor at Harvard University. Ryerson University ecologist and landscape planner Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, also worked on the project, along with architecture firm Rvtr, design firm Opsys, and the multimedia firm Studio Blackwell.

Extraction examines Canada’s role in extracting the resources that fuel our cities. “Canada has become a global resource empire. The preeminent extraction nation on the planet,” Bélanger said, citing its 20,000 mining projects now underway.

Visitors to the exhibit are invited to look through a hole in the ground, where they see a solid-gold survey stake planted at the intersection of the English, French, and Canadian pavilions. Beyond the stake, a video plays, displaying the history of Canada’s resource extraction through 800 images from 800 contributors in 800 seconds.

Bélanger and his team were initially warned that visitors to the exhibit would begrudge prostrating themselves to view the film, so “we milled a beautiful ½-inch surface of Corian that we keep clean and made a pillow for people to kneel on as a way to engage the project. Many people started laying down on the ground and relaxing.”

A visitor to Extraction watches a video displayed in the ground / copyright Laurian Ghinitoiu, via Arch Daily
A visitor to Extraction watches a video displayed in the ground / copyright Laurian Ghinitoiu, via Arch Daily

Architect Bruce Kuwabara told Bélanger that Extraction “engages us in questions of responsibility and ethics in the face of an overwhelming challenge — to reset the relationships of power so we might create a more transparent and equitable world.”

Bélanger explained that most Biennale visitors suffer from “interior exhibition fatigue,” and that the fresh air and natural light were in part responsible for the large crowds Extraction has drawn. Furthermore, “we specifically under-designed the project and augmented the texture and interaction in order to engage the senses in ways that appeal to a much larger audience than drawings, models, or writings on the wall.”

He added: “exhibitions at the Biennale are expected to be about the celebration of national architecture, located inside of a national building belonging to a specific nation. Our involvement as landscape architects, ecologists, planners, and urbanists makes it unique.”

Indeed, the Venice Biennale is a valuable opportunity to share landscape architecture as well. “The basic element of land — in all its political, ecological, social, and technological dimensions — is often overlooked. We need to make land relevant to pressing questions and critical matters of urbanism and a very large audience of professionals and the public.”

Extraction will be on display in Venice through November 27 and then proceed onto a Canadian tour through 2017. A book of essays concerning Extraction is also in the works, co-edited by Bélanger and Lister. Learn more online or by following the project on twitter @1partperbillion.

The Resurgence of Downtown Detroit

John Varvatos boutique, downtown Detroit / John Varvatos
John Varvatos boutique, downtown Detroit / John Varvatos

“The opportunities Detroit has today are a logical evolution from its past mistakes and disinvestment. To an extent, change wouldn’t be possible without that,” explained Kent Anderson, ASLA, founder of KH Anderson, in a tour of downtown Detroit during the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). He added that Detroit native Dan Gilbert, the founder and owner of Quicken Loans, who has bought up nearly 80 buildings downtown over the past decade, is largely responsible for the resurgence today. “Gilbert recognized the time was right for setting a new direction.”

Anderson raced us through a tour of downtown, explaining the history of the area and how the city got to where it is today. We raced in part because almost none of the crosswalks in this still car-centric city alotted adequate time to cross the expansive, multi-lane streets.

The city was founded by the French in 1701 as a fur trading outpost. In the early 1700s, the British took over control. In 1760, they were defeated by the American revolutionaries, but they largely maintained control over the growing city until the end of the 18th century, when the Americans retook it. In 1805, a fire started by a baker destroyed much of the city’s core. August Woodward, who was “trained in classics at Columbia University,” stepped in to create a new urban plan — a hexagonal plan with a set of radials, modeled on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C.

Woodward Plan / Map of the Week
Woodward Plan / Map of the Week

Many called Woodward a “charlatan and a fool; he was not the most popular guy.” But somehow much of his unique plan was implemented.

Woodward plan aerial, 1920 / State of Fred
Woodward plan aerial, 1920 / State of Fred

Woodward’s plan established small parks as nodes. Only a few of these remain today, Anderson said. In fact, so much was lost to misguided urban renewal efforts, which ran from the 1950s to 1970s. “Urban renewal also destroyed a lot of cultural heritage downtown,” wrecking particular havoc on important African American arts and music communities.

Anderson explained the state of the original immigrant communities — Corktown for the Irish, Chinatown, and Greektown. Only Corktown and Greektown now remain. In the 80s and 90s, Greektown offered the “only nightlife in Detroit.” To lure tourists, they created a “trappers alley, with trinket shops,” which failed. They then went in for casinos, which now frame the narrow streets bustling with restaurants and baklava shops.

Greektown, Detroit / Jared Green
Greektown, Detroit / Jared Green

In rapid-fire mode, Anderson pointed out the fate of many of the towering buildings built many decades ago, during the city’s golden age. The former Wayne County Building, built in the 1880s, is now viewed as a “dinosaur” by the local development community and has sit empty for years.

Old Wayne County Building / Crain's Business
Old Wayne County Building / Crain’s Business

In the late 1950s, a cornice fell off a building downtown, killing a pedestrian. The city demanded building owners secure the cornices on their buildings, but to lower costs many just removed them, as seen in this charismatic but incomplete flatiron building. “If you see a cornice restored today on an older building, it’s most likely fiber composite.”

Detroit's Flatiron building / Flickr
Detroit’s Flatiron building / Flickr

Walking down to the waterfront, we saw a prime example of a “fortress building,” the Renaissance Center, which was home to Ford’s headquarters, and now hosts GM. The building, towering and unfriendly, was another urban renewal effort, built in the 1970s. As race relations hit new lows after the riots and white flight, “there was a fear of cities,” Anderson said, hence it’s fortress-like nature.

Renaissance Center, Detroit / Wikipedia
Renaissance Center, Detroit / Wikipedia

Henry Ford the 2nd decided to bring Ford’s workers back to the urban core in an effort to “stop the decline of downtown, but the building had no connection to anything. Employees would drive in, park in the building, take a tube to their desk, take another tube to the cafeteria, and, then, at the end of the day, drive home.” Anderson called it a “failed” effort, despite a renovation by architects with SOM from 1995-2000, which introduced a somewhat inviting entrance and interior circulation system, and fake palm trees. “It just looks like an assembly line in here; people seem afraid to move the tables.”

Renaissance Center interior / SOM
Renaissance Center interior / SOM

Exiting the rear of the Renaissance Center, we came out at the Detroit Riverwalk, which was created in 2000 to connect the waterfront to Belle Isle, an island park. “It’s highly used, very successful.” We walk through a plaza more-recently created by Hargreaves Associates.

Detroit river boardwalk / Jared Green
Detroit river boardwalk / Jared Green

Then make our way to the vast Philip A. Hart plaza, another urban renewal effort, created by SmithGroupJJR with a fountain and sculpture created by the great Modern artist Isamu Noguchi, and another “failed, lonely space,” unless there is some massive event.

Dodge foundation in Philip A. Hart Plaza, Detroit / Wikipedia
Dodge foundation in Philip A. Hart Plaza, Detroit / Wikipedia

Decades of disinvestment in downtown Detroit means that many of the city’s Art Deco gems escaped the wrecking ball, and now stand as beacons of resurgence, as they attract new shops and cafes in their ground floors and companies in their towers. Entering the Guardian building, the tour group gushed over the intricate Native American motifs carved set in the ceilings. But not everyone was awed: a man who works there saw our tour group and said: “I don’t know why anyone come to see this building; it’s so old and outdated.”

Guardian building, Detroit / Wikipedia
Guardian building, Detroit / Wikipedia

Then on to one of the finest examples anywhere of how landscape architecture can drive a downtown’s resurgence: Campus Martius Park. The park, which occupied a central node in Woodward’s plan, was a central meeting space for over a century, but over 1980s and 90s, it was slowly eviscerated, becoming a glorified traffic circle with a statue. In the early 00s, the Detroit 300, a group representing old Detroit money, invested in creating a new park. The result, which opened in 2004 and was designed by Rundell Ernstberger Associates from Indianapolis, is a dynamic 1.2-acre space, often called “Detroit’s living room,” packed with performance stages, moveable chairs, lush greenery, multiple restaurants, and an urban beach. In the winter, there’s also a skating rink that draws tens of thousands.

Campus Martius Park / Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park / Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park / Show Me Detroit Tours
Campus Martius Park / Show Me Detroit Tours

For Anderson, Campus Martius Park “provided a glimpse of what was possible,” and served “as the stimulus for getting things started, just before Gilbert committed to downtown.”

Walking up Woodward Avenue seeing every storefront occupied by a hip restaurant or shop, it’s clear how far Detroit has come in the past few years due to a coordinated development effort, largely led by the private sector. “What’s important to understand is it wasn’t one building or so-called impact project this time around, unlike past efforts to revitalize the downtown. This time, it is a strategic approach involving many buildings with an intent to connect them with a network of public and semi-public spaces where everything works together to reveal the unique character of downtown Detroit and transform it.”

To further accelerate the process of turning Woodward Avenue into a live, work, play hub that can draw in people from the outskirts of this 140-square-mile city and the suburbs, a new streetcar, financed by the private sector, is expected to start running later this year. Anderson said Gilbert and other local developers, who are turning old vacant office buildings into apartment buildings that will bring upwards of 5,000 units onto the market, are confident “the entire district will soon be filled up.”

Rendering of M-1 Streetcar line, Woodward Avenue / Next City
Rendering of M-1 Streetcar line, Woodward Avenue / Next City

Indeed, a taxi driver I spoke to on the way to the airport said he had move out of downtown because his rent doubled in the past year in response to new demand. He believes people need to make at least $55,000 a year to live downtown now. But he wasn’t complaining. “Detroit has been waiting a long time for this to happen. I was just shocked they raised the rent so fast.”

Anderson believes after years of failed revitalization efforts, this is Detroit’s chance. “We’ll see how things go over the next five years, but I believe the city has gotten it right this time. Everyone is on the same page for the first time.”

The New Landscape Declaration: Perspective and Critique (Part 1)

LandscapeDeclarationLogo
New Landscape Declaration / LAF

After hearing 23 declarations on the first day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, panels of landscape architects on day two critiqued the declarations, delved into some of the important facets of landscape architecture — aesthetics, ecology, society, and innovation — and offered visions for what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years.

Aesthetics: Connect Through Creativity

The panel, which was led by Adam Greenspan, ASLA, a member of the LAF board of directors, essentially worried that the importance of “physical design, which engages culture and nature,” may be lost in the total quest for sustainability and restoring ecosystems. Their response was designed landscapes must be beautiful if we expect communities to love them and take care of them far into the future.

Claude Cormier, ASLA, principal of Claude Cormier + Associates, said aesthetics has always played a central role in landscape architecture. Frederick Law Olmsted was “focused on nature as an aesthetic experience.” For Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, Mikyoung Kim Design, it’s less about aesthetics, a term she dislikes, and more about the “process of creativity, which is methodical and conscious, and about tapping intuition, which occurs on a subconscious level.” But she cautioned that if landscape architects were “too creative, they risk missing the pressing global issues.”

In the context of the overall summit, this seemed like a shocking statement: “We can’t save the world, but we can address some major issues through design in contemporary ways,” argued Chris Reed, FASLA, founder of Stoss. “Design can move people’s hearts to create action.” Ken Smith, FASLA, principal of Ken Smith Workshop, largely concurred, arguing that “aesthetics matter. The qualitative aspects — the spaces, programs, forms — provide meaning to humans. Landscapes can delight, confound, confuse, excite us.” He pointed to the art world, where the “new is often ugly,” arguing that perhaps landscape architects also need to be pushing the boundaries on concepts of beauty. Meanwhile, Maria Goula, associate professor at Cornell University, asked: “do we need new aesthetics or perhaps multiple aesthetics?”

East River Waterfront Dog Run, NYC / Ken Smith Workshop
East River Waterfront Dog Run, NYC / Ken Smith Workshop

Ecology: Make Ecological Design Mainstream

“People will look at us and this time and say we just didn’t get it,” said Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, professor at University of California, Berkeley, referring to the many dangers facing our ecosystems and planet. Hill, who moderated the ecology panel, relayed how San Francisco’s city government momentarily fell into crisis when a senior official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated they expected a 6-9 feet sea level rise by 2050. While it was just one official’s personal opinion, San Francisco’s panicked response showed that “stronger sense of urgency is needed” in the push to adapt our ecosystems to the coming environmental changes. “Unprecedented instability is coming. The role of landscape architects is to think out the options and try not to panic.”

Ellen Neises, ASLA, an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania, said in this age of crisis, we need to move away from “sustainability propaganda in which ‘optimism sells.'” Instead, “designers need to provoke more.” Jose Alminana, FASLA, a principal at Andropogon Associates and major force behind the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), rued that ecology is “still not mainstream in our profession.” He called for landscape architecture educators to “embed scientific rigor in the educational process,” and landscape architects to do the same in their design process. “Beauty and performance aren’t mutually exclusive. All forms of life matter.”

Shoemaker Green, University of Pennsylvania campus by Andropogon Associates / Tillet Lighting Design
Shoemaker Green, University of Pennsylvania campus by Andropogon Associates / Tillet Lighting Design

Brett Milligan, ASLA, University of California, Davis, argued that “if we do things to the landscape, they sometimes respond in some ways we dislike. We need a new, relational way to interact with the landscape.” Julie Bargmann, founding principal, D.I.R.T. Studio, urged caution against becoming too all-knowing about nature, arguing that “ecological models are slippery.” And Antje Stokman, International ASLA, professor at the University of Stuttgart, called for creating methods to encourage “direct community engagement with the environment,” particularly in environments characterized by heavy migration among both human and other species.

Society: Diversify and Co-design with Communities 

Deb Guenther, FASLA, partner at Mithun, led a discussion that focused on the twinned goals of increasing diversity in the landscape architecture profession and better reaching under-served communities. Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, principal at DesignJones, pointed to ASLA’s ongoing efforts to increase diversity through its annual diversity summit, which brings together emerging African American and Latino landscape architects, but also called it like she saw it: “if we truly want diversity, we need to focus less on statistics and instead recognize and praise diversity and lift it up.” She pointed to the range of African American landscape architects doing important work, often under the radar. Jeffrey Hou, ASLA, professor at University of Washington, added that “landscape architects need to diversify their ranks or risk becoming a profession of colonialists,” coming in as white experts into communities of color.

Diane Jones Allen, ASLA / Landscape Architecture Magazine
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA / Landscape Architecture Magazine

“Landscape architecture can diversify in the next decade or two,” because just look at the huge gains that have been made to bring in more women over the past 50 years, argued Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor at MIT. She explained her multiple decades of experience helping African American communities in Philadelphia unearth their own landscapes, explaining how “long-term commitments are needed to build trust.” She wondered whether landscape architecture programs, with their semester-long field projects, can truly engage and learn from communities in which they dip for a short time. Jones Allen concurred, arguing that “we have to be careful how we get students into these communities, but it’s important to get them out of their comfort zone of the studio and face real people with real issues. Students are learning.” Allison Hirsch, ASLA, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, was less positive, arguing that “landscape architects tend to avoid issues of inclusion; there are few community-oriented design practices.”

For Spirn and others, the solution is more equitable design processes rooted in co-design and a participatory process with stakeholders. The goal should be capacity building among communities. “Make the design process transparent, not opaque,” argued Spirn.

Innovation: Move Beyond the Discipline

Adrian McGregor, Internatonal ASLA, a founder of McGregor Coxall in Australia, envisions a “new economy that trades in carbon, which will raise underlying values of ecosystems,” eventually resulting in a new “NASDAQ for the environment.” The growing importance of sequestering carbon in the environment will “put landscape architects at the table.”

Andrea Hansen, founder of Fluxscape, wants landscape architects to “move beyond the discipline, embrace holistic thinking,” and embrace open data. But she added that increasing innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “increasing complexity; we must keep it simple when we communicate to expand our reach.” To realize this reach beyond the discipline, Marcel Wilson, ASLA, founder of Bionic, called for more experimentation and risks, even if they result in failures. “We must incentivize innovation; landscape architects have become too reactive.”

Liat Margolis, ASLA, director of the Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab), University of Toronto, appears to be doing what Wilson called and Hansen have called for, as she works to create the next generation of green roof technologies. “We need to discover different material composites, bridge performance gaps, and exceed current green design benchmarks through experimental design.”

Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) / Sandy Nicholson, University of Toronto Magazine
Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) / Sandy Nicholson, University of Toronto Magazine

And Karen M’Closley, ASLA, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, similarly called for a “new set of sustainable design indicators, set-up pre-occupancy and post-occupancy surveys, and capture results in real-time.” Margolis finally asked: “where is the landscape architecture field’s think tank?”

The New Landscape Declaration: Perspective and Critique (Part 2)

LandscapeDeclarationLogo
New Landscape Declaration / LAF

The second day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation‘s New Landscape Declaration:  Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future offered critical responses to the 23 declarations delivered on the first day of the event and looked ahead to the next 50 years. Afternoon sessions were divided into five panels, each representing a different aspect of landscape architecture: academic practice, private practice, public practice, capacity building organizations, and emerging voices. Each panelist gave a short talk before engaging in a group discussion, addressing audience-sourced questions, and offering perspectives on what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years:

Academic practice: Maintain the value of the “long view”

“Academics combine teaching, scholarship, and service” while “taking the long view: looking back, then to now, and forward,” argued University of Illinois professor Elen Deming, ASLA, moderator of the first panel. The panel largely resisted responding to the more-urgent cries for action from the first days’ declarations, with Jacky Bowring, professor at Lincoln University, cautioning, “there is power and danger in the language we use.”

The academicians saw the future of landscape as both cultural art and applied science. While Anu Mathur, ASLA, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, championed “design as a field of inquiry” in which “design tools and techniques are our academic science,” Susan Herrington, ASLA, professor at the University of British Columbia, reminded the largely-professional audience that design schools “do not train scientists,” citing long hours in the studio. Yet a question from the audience concerning the rising costs of education revealed that a lack of scientific rigor in landscape architectural research limits access to external funding that could help lower escalating costs.

Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein
Bradley Cantrell studio testing responsive hydrologic systems at the GSD / David J Klein

Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor at Syracuse University, spoke to the power of design writing and criticism in spreading ideas. Other panelists noted the academy’s global reach comes from the increasingly international students it recruits and where schools build partnerships.

Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, professor and chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University, delivered four points the panel saw as critical to the future of academic practice: 1) commit to frameworks of learning, 2) avoid binaries and ideologies, 3) encourage student thinking and action, 4) increase diversity and range of students.

Private practice: Lead through collaboration and deep expertise

The private practice panel was moderated by Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), who emphasized that practitioners deal with the challenges of not only serving clients and achieving design excellence, but most also “run profitable businesses, all without harming the earth.” In their contribution toward a new declaration, the practice panel called for firms to become increasingly adaptable and gain deeper expertise.

Joe Brown, FASLA, consulting advisor at AECOM, insisted that “practices must respond to students’ ambitious ideals.” He later added that larger firms can act as teaching institutions as well, helping students achieve their new ideas. Thomas Balsey, FASLA, founder of Thomas Balsley Associates, agreed that in private practice, “a commitment to growth and evolution” can come from being open to what students bring. Through internships and the induction of recent graduates, Balsley offered ”student-led seminars” as a bridge between the ideas of the academy and the constraints of contemporary practice. Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, claimed “education in firms will be the biggest draw in future private practice.”

The panel addressed the importance of having both deep expertise and leadership skills as landscape architects manage complex, collaborative projects. Mark Johnson, FASLA, co-founder of Civitas, noted that being a leader isn’t just about being a “good generalist, but also an expert.” Balsley, who saw collaboration as the key for smaller firms to get big commissions, elaborated: “you need preparation and dedication to being an expert to be capable of collaborating.” Or as Gustafson put it, “to let landscape lead, you have to be the smartest person in the room;” but also be pro-active: “know your experts and demand what you need from them.”

Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Centennial park master plan, Tennessee / Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Adding a more critical voice to the private practice panel was Keith Bowers, FASLA, founder and principal at BioHabitats. Noting he is often on the other side of these collaborations, providing ecological design services, Bowers re-asserted the importance of private landscape practices to lead by “turning around political and financial institutions.” He emphasized the importance of sticking to your environmental values and having “conviction, spirit, and humility in everything you do.”

Public practice: Change policy to achieve impact

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, led the public practice panel, which advocated for their important role in “defending and expanding” landscape’s role, all the while “creating places of experience that stick with people throughout their lifetime.” Acknowledging the stigma of bureaucracy, Nette Compton, ASLA, senior director of ParkCentral and City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, said to “young professionals: you can get a lot done at a young age;” her own rise in the New York City parks department being but one example.

Joking that landscape architects are a “shade-loving species,” Mark Focht, FASLA, former ASLA president and senior official in Philadelphia’s parks department, joined others on the panel in suggesting landscape architects must “push themselves out there” into positions of power and “demand design excellence for under-served communities.” This point was affirmed by Deborah Marton, executive director of New York Restoration Project, who noted that “private dollars rarely go into low-income places.”

Going one step further was Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture for U.S. General Services Administration, who encouraged landscape architects to be “infiltrators and insurgents,” using policy as a mechanism to deliver action. Citing his involvement in the Obama administration’s efforts to restore pollinators to health, Gabriel thinks re-conceptualizing policy through ecosystem services “is where our greatest future and capacity lies.”

Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Hilltop Landscape architects
Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse sustainable landscape for pollinators / Rios Clementi Hale

Picking up on the Beth Meyer’s keynote speech and Martha Schwartz’s declaration from the first day of the LAF Summit, Edward Garza, CEO Zane Garway and former mayor of San Antonio, challenged landscape architects to “embrace the political world” and even to run for mayor.

Capacity organizations: Design a path to increased diversity

As demonstrated by the summit itself, capacity organizations like LAF play a crucial role in forging the future of landscape architecture. Having heard all the declarations and much of the audience and Q & A, the panel, which included representatives from the LAF, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architecture (IFLA), Public Architecture, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), acknowledged how important diversity is to the future of the profession. Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, announced a multi-organizational effort entitled Mirroring the Nation, which is meant to attract and support more minorities to the profession, so that “our profession might better mirror the population it serves.”

The panel also called for landscape architects to have more impact on a global level. Leading the cause was Raquel Penalosa, ASLA, who is using her position as President of IFLA Americas, to “work globally in the service of localities. We must be humble and listen” closely to what communities want. And IFLA president Kathryn Moore said the world’s tens of thousands of landscape architects can have more impact by forming an “interdisciplinary vision” based in “common values,” particularly given the field is one of the fastest growing worldwide.

LAF President Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, and Somerville debated a bit on whether a “new narrative” was needed to achieve greater public awareness, with Deutsch calling for an entirely new set of messages, and Somerville arguing that “we are making progress with our current messages among some groups — like the older, wealthier, and better educated — but need to better reach diverse audiences. We need to get the messages out where they need to be.”

Emerging voices: Promote the next generation

With the help of Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, the emerging voices panel assembled a group of recent LAF Olmsted scholars. An appropriate ending to a summit on “the future of landscape architecture,” these future leaders each wrote their own declarations, which they then presented to the 700-plus crowd.

Leading off was a 2015 University Olmsted scholar Joanna Karaman, Student ASLA. Now working as a landscape designer at OLIN, Karaman challenged landscape architects to “be honest about how we represent what we build.” Her work in time-based media (Karaman is also working on a film about and for the LAF Summit) seeks to bring power to the profession through the use of videos that can make more accessible the volatility and transformational potential of landscapes.

Following Karaman was Nina Chase, ASLA, senior project manager at Riverlife in Pittsburgh, who advocated for “capitalizing on the resurgence of fun” through short-term pop-up projects that can serve as prototypes and catalyze public participation. Embracing the mantra of “test before you invest,” Chase suggested that developing projects incrementally is both good for creating fun, but also for building resilience to climate change.

Scott Irvine, a 2015 University Olmsted scholar from the University of Manitoba, delivered a message from the Canadian plains, cautioning that landscape architects should beware of “becoming overly urban,” and that too often now, “regionalism stops at the edge of the city itself.” Another caution was issued by Timothy Mollette-Parks, ASLA, associate principal at Mithun, who argued that “landscape can’t be formulaic, and we must not lose our dedication as designers.”

Wrapping up the panel was the 2016 National Olmsted scholar, Azzurra Cox, Student ASLA, a recent graduate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, who called for landscape architects to engage in what she calls “critical ethnography: design as a humanist, political, and narrative act.”

This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, 2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.