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.

The Public Spaces of the Future: Up for Negotiation

Demo:Polis / Carolina Leite
Demo:Polis / Carolina Leite

The jury is in. Over the next fifty years, the world’s cities will face unprecedented stresses from a changing climate, growing populations, and issues of security, resource scarcity, and civil unrest. In the design professions, we like to think our work can help resolve these issues. In the U.S., over the past century, we have debated the role of public space to ease the challenges faced within our urban environment. This conversation will not end anytime soon, nor should it. However, if we continue to place our trust and faith in urban public spaces we must re-examine two fundamental questions: how will we define success within these spaces, and who will we allow to shape them?

Demo:Polis, an exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, brings these exact questions under the spotlight. Through a diverse set of examples, we see traditionally-successful projects commissioned by powerful institutions – grand urban plazas and lush, popular parks – juxtaposed with smaller and less familiar spaces made publicly valuable by a handful of ordinary people. The contrasts force us to question the assumptions that shape our understanding of public space: Is a space less valuable if it supports democracy and community but isn’t popular? Who is allowed to shape the character of a space – its boundaries, capabilities, and purpose – and who ultimately decides its worth?

Whatever the viewer takes from the exhibition, at least one theme became clear among the examples presented: the urban public will not wait for its invitation to shape the space it inhabits. Where there is a need to organize, cooperate, be seen or heard, people will find or create spaces to fulfill these goals.

Such “by the public, for the public” projects are the real strength behind Demo:Polis and remind us the spaces we design do not stop changing after they have been constructed. Rather, our grand and expensive projects exist within a countless network of daily human interactions and interventions – some adversarial, some unifying, many completely benign – that continuously shape the meaning and character of a public area. Despite their small or nonexistent budgets, informality, and frequent messiness, these individual actions and reactions refuse to be  subordinated.

By leading us to these observations, Demo:Polis suggests something that we have known for many years but often struggle to remember. The cities of 2050 will not be shaped solely by powerful governments, deep-pocketed investors, or high-profile design firms. They will not strive for beauty or popularity alone. Rather, they will be formed by powerful forces: communities unwilling to – or unable to – withhold their influence on public space or remain passive in meeting their own needs.

As we consider the role of urban space in creating tenable cities, and our role as designers in shaping urban space, we must also choose whether to acknowledge this public influence or ignore it.

This guest post is by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, CEO of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) and Joseph Bivona, senior project manager, MVVA.

The New Landscape Declaration: Visions for the Next 50 Years

India's water crisis / National Geographic
India’s water crisis / National Geographic

Over the next 50 years, landscape architects must coordinate their actions globally to fight climate change, help communities adapt to a changing world, bring artful and sustainable parks and open spaces to every community rich or poor, preserve cultural landscape heritage, and sustain all forms of life on Earth. These were the central messages that came out the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future in Philadelphia, which was attended by over 700 landscape architects.

The speakers used declarations and short idea-packed talks, and attendees used cards, polls, and an interactive question and commenting app to provide input into a new declaration — a vision to guide the efforts of landscape architects to 2066.

As the 50th anniversary of the original declaration in 1966, many landscape architects looked back to see what has been achieved over the past 50 years. At the same time, through a series of bold statements, they created an ambitious global vision moving forward. As Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, president of LAF, believes: “We are now entering the age of landscape architecture.”

While not a comprehensive review of all the declarations, here are some highlights of the visions of what landscape architects must work to achieve over the next 50 years:

Landscape architects must address the “serious issues of air, water, food, and waste” in developing countries

Alpa Nawre, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture, Kansas State University, called for landscape architects to focus their efforts on the developing world, where the bulk of the current population and most of the future population growth will occur. Today, of the 7.2 billion people on Earth, some 6 billion live in developing countries. There, some 100 million lack access to clean water. The global population is expected to reach 9.6 billion in coming decades, with 400 million added mostly to the cities of the global south. “To accommodate these billions, we must design better landscape systems for resource management.”

Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, CEO of the SWA Group, echoed that sentiment, arguing that “in the future, there will be much more stringent regulations on natural resources” as they become rarer and more valuable. Landscape architects will play a larger role in valuing and managing those resources.

Christophe Girot, chair of landscape architecture, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, similarly saw the need for “new topical landscapes” for the 9.6 billion who will inhabit the Earth. We must “react, think creatively, and find solutions.”

Landscape architects must improve upon urbanization-as-usual

Instead of pursuing idealized visions of parks that may result in “tidy little ornaments of green that make liberals feel good,” Chris Marcinkowski, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and partner at PORT Urbanism, said landscape architects must “work with the underlying systems of urbanization and adapt them,” softening them in an era when 1 billion people live in cities.

James Corner, ASLA, founder of James Corner Field Operations, pushed for accelerating urbanization in order to protect surrounding nature. “If you love nature, live in the city.” He called for landscape architects to “embed beauty and pleasure in cities” in the forms of parks and gardens, because we need to make it “so that people should want to live in cities.” Landscape architects must envision a denser urban world as well, and “shape the form of the future city.” His vision of the future city is a “garden city” that takes advantage of the “landscape imagination.” And Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and Henri Bava, founding partner, Agence TER, similarly made the case for a new “landscape-led urbanism” rooted in ecological processes.

David Gouverneur, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, called for applying novel approaches to the informal communities in which he works in Venezuela, where the conventional planning and design process fails. He proposed retrofitting these places through his “informal armature approach,” which can create both pathways and communal nodes but also areas of flexible growth that allows “locals to invade and occupy.” He argued that new forms of planning and design can better meet the needs of the hundreds of millions living in informal communities in the world.

Informal armature / David Gouverneur
Informal armature / David Gouverneur

And Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, explained how her community-centric approach “creates a scaffolding for meaningful participation that is an active generator of social life.” For her, it’s all about “linking the social to the ecological and scaling that up for communities.”

Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, also called for all landscape architects to get more active at the urban and regional scales. “That’s where society needs us the most.”

Landscape architects must create a future for wild nature

“The landscape has been broken into fragments. We need a more inclusive approach, a new philosophical relationship between humanity and nature,” said Feng Han, director, department of landscape studies, Tongji University in Shanghai. That new approach must be rooted in “just landscape planning and design.”

Randolph Hester Jr., FASLA, director, Center for Ecological Democracy, and professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, made a similar and compelling argument, saying that “justice and beauty must be found together in the landscape.” The landscape itself is a “community, with the ecological and cultural being indivisible.”

A central part of achieving that just landscape planning and design approach is to better respect the other 2.5 million known species on the planet, argued Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University. “We must think of the quality of being for them, too.” To protect their homes, landscape architects must lead the charge in “re-establishing the role of the wild.” E.O. Wilson, in his most recent book, Half Earth, calls for preserving half of the planet for the other species. “That kind of goal is a blunt instrument. Now we need to design what that looks like. We need a planetary strategy that connects remnant fragments. We can create a global mosaic that will be the foundation of a next wave of conservation.”

Projective Ecologies / Harvard University Press
Projective Ecologies / ACTAR, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

A key part of those mosaics will be designed sustainable landscapes, said Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, who argued that “sustainability needs to be addressed in every landscape” moving forward. “We must keep every scrap of nature” by certifying projects with systems like SITES.

And in case anyone forgot the essential message: Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, argued that “everything comes from nature and is inspired by nature.”

Landscape architects must dramatically increase in number

Given landscape architects relatively small numbers — there are estimated to be less than 75,000 worldwide — Martha Fajardo, International ASLA, CEO, Grupo Verde, said each must “become ambassadors for the landscape,” speaking loudly wherever they go.

But Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, Mexico’s leading landscape architect, said that may not be enough and more numbers are needed. For example, while there are more than 150,000 architects in Mexico, there are only 1,000 landscape architects.

He said: “There are not enough landscape architects in the developing world. And we need a global perspective. The U.S. and Euro-centric perspective must change. More landscape architects from the developing world studying in the U.S. and Europe need to return to their countries and help.”

Landscape architects must diversify themselves fast

“Minorities are woefully underrepresented” in the field of landscape architecture, argued Gina Ford, ASLA, a partner at Sasaki. “The black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. are growing.” How can we address this? Ford called for the highest levels of academic and firm leadership to bring in and hire minorities. “It’s not about getting warm, fuzzy feelings; it’s about innovation. Diversity begets innovation. Diverse staff resonate with diverse clients. We must diversify to create a shared vision for the future.”

Landscape architects must get even more political

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, founder of Heritage Landscapes, who is active in UNESCO, ICOMOS, and other international organizations, said the first step is for landscape architects to “show up” and engage in political debates. Then, they must “collaborate to be relevant.” Working within these complex international fora, O’Donnell herself pushes for “connecting biological diversity with cultural diversity” and encouraging these organizations to value cultural landscapes. To be more relevant, she said, landscape architects should further align their efforts with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, may be the epitome of the political landscape architect. His work spans planning and design across mainland China, but he spends a good amount of his time and energy on persuading thousands of local mayors and senior governmental leaders alike on the value of “planning for ecological security.” He called for landscape architects to “think big — at the local, regional, and national scales” — and to influence decision-makers.

China ecological security plan / Turenscape
China ecological security plan / Turenscape

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners, who is an active advocate and commentator in the UK, where she now lives, threw down the gauntlet, calling for landscape architects to form a political wing that will urge policymakers to fund bold research into geo-engineering techniques that can stave off the planetary emergency caused by climate change. At the same time, “we need to start a political agenda for a Manhattan project to reduce carbon emissions.” Schwartz sees ASLA pushing for climate rescue over the next 50 years, helping us to “buy the time for a second chance to live in balance with the Earth.” For her and others, climate action is the platform for landscape architecture for the next five decades.

And Kelly Shannon, chair of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, International ASLA, made the case for “changing the unsustainable status quo and inspiring new social movements.” Landscape architects must become “essential game changers.”

Landscape architects must better leverage green infrastructure to achieve broader goals 

Using their knowledge of systems, nature, and people, landscape architects must find new opportunities to regenerate poor communities that have been left out. Tim Duggan, ASLA, Phronesis, called for using green infrastructure as a wedge for creating opportunities. “In consent decree communities, green infrastructure can be leveraged to create wider urban regenerative processes.” Green infrastructure, as Duggan has shown, can become the catalyst for community development.

But to make this happen in New Orleans and Kansas City, he had to “lobby change at the decision-maker level and string together innovative financing mechanisms.” In other words, he had to wade into the broader economic and governmental systems to make change happen.

Landscape architects must keep design central to the human experience 

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), said a “holistic view” was needed, and that landscape architects can’t foresake the important role of art and design in the experience of landscape architecture by focusing exclusively on ecological values. “We need to put the value of landscape architect on the level of the artist.” Harriet Pattison, FASLA, helped him make the point in this segment of her TCLF oral history project:

Blaine Merker, ASLA, Gehl Studio, argued for “making humanism physical and celebrating the human condition” through well-designed space for people. “Plazas and parks increase social connection. This leads to deep sustainability and happiness that reinforce each other.”

Landscape architects must generate new fields of research and design to stay relevant

A fascinating idea: what is on the margins today may be at the center tomorrow. Dirk Sijmons, co-founder, H+N+S Landscape Architects, argued for landscape architects to get more deeply involved in what may be a marginal area for them now: the transition to clean energy. He showed his work animating the energy flows of off-shore wind farms in the North Sea. “We must develop new centers for the discipline.”

Landscape architects educators must “revolutionize the landscape architecture education system” and become more pragmatic

Kongjian Yu also called for the educational system to teach the aesthetic value of ecology and sustainability. “We need deep forms rooted in ecology, not shallow forms. Nature is the bedrock.” Yu calls landscape architecture an “art of survival” that will become increasingly relevant as the world’s problems only multiply. “We need to teach how landscapes can fight flooding, fire, drought, and produce food. We need to generate pragmatic knowledge and basic survival skills to open up new horizons.”

Marc Treib, professor of architecture emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, added that “the sustainable is not antithetical to the beautiful. We can elevate the pragmatic to the level of poetry.”

While these bold ideas do push the landscape architecture agenda forward, what was missing from the LAF event was some critical discussions on how to better collaborate with scientists, ecologists, developers, architects, urban planners, and engineers on forging a common vision that can increase their collective impact in the halls of power; the coming explosion of aging populations; the health benefits of nature — and how the desire for better health could become a central driver of demand for landscape architecture; and sustainable transportation and the future of mobility. Hopefully, we’ll see more on these as LAF continues to hone its vision.

The New Landscape Declaration: Looking Back Over the Past 50 Years

Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair
Manhattan smog in 1966 / Andy Blair

At the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future, which met in Philadelphia last week, more than 700 landscape architects offered personal declarations and contributed their ideas, all in an effort to shape the 50-year follow-up to LAF’s original declaration of concern, published in 1966 amid massive political and social change and an era of environmental degradation in the United States.

Although the focus of the summit was on forging a new declaration and vision for the profession that can guide the efforts of landscape architects over the next five decades, there was also a call to “critically reflect on what landscape architecture has achieved over the last 50 years.”

Amid all the declarations and discussion, a few major themes came out of the reflections on what has shaped landscape architecture since 1966:

The American environmental crisis went global
From the original declaration: “A sense of crisis has brought us together.”

In his introductory remarks, LAF President Kona Gray, ASLA, was quick to note that in the 1966 declaration, “it was all about the American landscape.” The original declaration cites concerns that “Lake Erie is becoming septic, New York City is short of water, the Delaware River is infused with salt, the Potomac River with sewage and silt.” Kongjian Yu, FASLA, founder of Turenscape, noted that this 1966 description of the American environment was in sharp contrast to what Ian McHarg, influential landscape architect and one of the co-writers of the original declaration, simultaneously referred to as “oriental harmony” of the hydraulic civilizations of Asia. Yet 50 years later, Yu, along with Alpa Nawre, ASLA, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Kansas State University, were struck by similarities between 1950’s America and modern China and India today, where development has also led to environmental problems at an unprecedented scale.

In addition to the local crises of pollution, environmental degradation, and habitat loss that has run rampant in the developing world in the past few decades, new overarching global crises have emerged in the form of human-induced climate change and rapid population growth.

Landscape architects got political
From the original declaration: “We pledge our services. We seek help from those who share our concern.”

While the 1966 declaration does not directly address politics, according to keynote speaker Beth Meyer, FASLA, professor at the University of Virginia, Ian McHarg, author of the seminal book Design with Nature, and the other co-writers of the declaration were responding to not only the environmental crisis, but also the political opportunity introduced through the reforms of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

McHarg was influential in the development of first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s thinking on the value of beauty and nature in cities as well as the launch of the White House Conference on Natural Beauty in May, 1965. He later referred to first lady and environmental advocate Lady Bird Johnson “as his fan.”

Meyer argued then that his central role in creating the 1966 declaration may have been as much about environmental stewardship as a call for increased political influence by landscape architects. Just four years later McHarg would join thousands in Philadelphia for the first ever Earth Day event.

1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia
1970 Inaugural Earth Day / Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia

This political context set the stage for protest and advocacy by many other leading landscape architects over the past five decades. Just one example of this at the LAF summit is Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners. In her declaration, Schwartz said that to respond to climate change, landscape architects must rekindle their political agency by being “online warriors” and rebuild the political wing of the profession that can “put forth a forceful agenda.” The sentiment was echoed by Kelly Shannon, chair of landscape architecture at the University of Southern California, International ASLA, who suggested that landscape architects must continue to “orient social movements and lead policy.”

People and parks returned to the city
From the original declaration: “Most urban Americans are being separated from visual and physical contact with nature in any form.”

At a time of rampant urban blight, the 1966 declaration made little reference to designing in cities. Fast forward 50 years and Blaine Merker, ASLA, director at Gehl Architects; James Corner, ASLA, founder of Field Operations; Henry Bava, partner at Agence Ter; Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design; and Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, among others, focused their declarations around celebrating and expanding landscape’s urban reemergence.

Whether it took the form or urban ecological planning, tactical urbanism, green infrastructure, or new parks and plazas, landscape architects have played a critical role in creating humane green public spaces for a new and increasingly urban generation. This effort has helped concentrate development, improve urban sustainability, and preserve the nature surrounding cities. As Corner championed: “if you love nature, live in a city.”

For others, landscape architecture’s return to the city allowed the discipline to grow beyond its 1966 definition as “applied natural sciences.” Christopher Marcincoski, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and partner at PORT Urbanism, argued that landscape architecture has effectively “softened the effect of urbanization,” at least in much of the developed world, but now must better anticipate the political, economic, social, and cultural forces behind urbanization in the areas left behind and the developing world.

For Tim Duggan, ASLA, these places are rich with opportunities. His declaration showed how his work not only over-layed environmental benefits, but also included the “overlaying of opportunities to find a catalytic but attainable scale” for financing and implementing regenerative infrastructure in under-served communities in Kansas City and New Orleans.

 Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation
Playground in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward / Make It Right Foundation

Landscape architects called for justice
From the original declaration: “Man is not free of nature’s demands.”

Perhaps one of the most resounding critiques of the 1966 declaration was its now dated emphasis on the conflict between man and nature. LAF president Kona Grey began by contrasting the six white male signees of the 1966 declaration with the 715 diverse attendees of the 2016 LAF summit. Throughout the summit, many speakers made the connection between the increased diversity of our profession and the increasingly diverse communities served by it.

There was Randy Hester, FASLA, a professor at University of California at Berkeley, who has long called for an ecological democracy. David Gouverneur, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who showed his methods for working with informal settlements in the global south. And the work of Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, demonstrated that collaborative design can build both social and physical resilience simultaneously. These and numerous other efforts demonstrated a growing push toward environmental justice, combining landscape architects call to serve both the people and the places that sustain them.

In addition to addressing diversity in her talk entitled “Landscape Humanism,” Gina Ford, a principal at Sasaki, ASLA,  also joined others in realizing that humans are no longer “nature’s antagonist,” but rather are inseparable from nature.

Laurie Olin, FASLA, founder of OLIN, quoted the great 20th century thinker Buckminster Fuller, reminding attendees that “the opposite of natural is impossible.” Yet our inclusion in nature during what is being called the sixth great extinction, led Nina-Marie Lister, Hon. ASLA, professor at Ryerson University, to ask, “who in the Anthropocene will care for the wild things?”

Learning from the shortcomings of the 1966 declaration, the 2016 declaration must respond to a greater diversity of people, living creatures, and agendas in order for landscape architects to continue to “make our vital contribution.”

Landscape architecture expanded in scale and scope
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect is uniquely rooted in the natural sciences.”

Delivering his declaration via a recorded video from Italy, Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, professor emeritus of landscape architecture and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, asserted that landscape architecture has grown to a “huge diversity of practices.” Steinitz charted how landscape architecture began as a multi-scalar practice, but has since ebbed and flowed between small, medium, and regional scales as predicted by the demands of each subsequent decade.

While Steinitz, Kelly Shannon, and Dirk Sijmons, co-founder,  H+N+S Landscape Architects, suggested a need to now revisit the regional scale so favored by McHarg and his colleagues, others assessed landscapes’ successes in prototyping smaller projects capable of global replication. The notion of landscape architecture as an expanded field was seen as both a pro and a con as some worried about being spread too thin, and others embraced the notion of landscape architect as infiltrator and instigator of public agencies and allied professions.

Ecological research was translated into design
From the original declaration: “The demand for better resource planning and design is expanding.”

While the global threat of climate change presents new, less visible challenges, many at the LAF Summit recognized that the 1966 Declaration’s call to action “to improve the American environment” had in many ways been answered. Having written, advocated for, and pioneered ecological landscape design projects, the impact of landscape architects has been transformational, many argued. As Mario Schjetnan, managing director of Grupo de Diseño Urbano, FASLA, noted, “U.S. cities have upgraded air quality, reduced soil and water pollution, and improved open space.”

In his declaration, Kongjian Yu, founder or Turenscape, FASLA, spoke of “50 years of experiments with fire, water, floods, and the landscape as living machine.” Noting new sustainability standards and guidelines such as LEED and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), “the change is amazing,” Yu exclaimed. He joined others in calling for the need to now “replicate and open new scales” through global practice.

ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape
ASLA 2015 Professional Genera Design Honor Award. Liupanshui Minghu Wetland Park / Turenscape

Historic landscapes became more valuable 
From the original declaration: “…the landscape architect practices an historic art.”

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, reminded LAF Summit attendees that 1966 was also the year that the Historic Preservation Act passed, and since 1998, Birnbaum, who is the president, CEO, and founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, has made enormous gains in documenting and preserving designed landscapes. For Birnbaum, placing cultural value on our existing landscape heritage is key to bolstering the contemporary contribution of landscape architects.

Complementing this perspective was Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, founder of Heritage Landscapes, who for over 30 years has advocated for “culture-based sustainable development.” Referring to her projects with organizations such as UNESCO and their Historic Urban Landscape Initiative, O’Donnell’s work is exemplary of how the sustaining powers of culture and heritage create “a larger community (for landscape) to participate with.”

Landscape architects emerged as lead collaborators
From the original declaration: “There is no ‘single solution’ but groups of solutions carefully related one to another. There is no one-shot cure, nor single-purpose panacea, but the need for collaborative solutions.”

The 1966 declaration was ahead of its time in its vision of landscape architecture as a collaborative discipline. Many modern declarations reinforced that landscape architects have not only have benefited from these broad collaborations, but also have been increasingly leading teams on the great urban and infrastructural projects of our time.

While James Corner noted the role of his firm in leading large multidisciplinary projects, Kate Orff used her declaration to suggest landscape architecture firms are now the “collaborative glue… convening, organizing, and enabling others” through projects that serve as a “scaffolding for participation.” As LAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, observed, increasingly you “can’t achieve sustainability without considering landscape.”

Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE
Collaborative Design for Living Breakwaters Project / SCAPE

Landscape architects learned how to simplify and communicate complexity
From the original declaration: “Once they understand landscape capabilities—the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of environment, the determinants of change—they can then interpret the landscape correctly.”

Following the original declaration by only three years, Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature paved the way for the subsequent decades of research, scholarship, and communication by landscape architects to the broader public about the complexities of our ever changing built and natural environment.

From Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Granite Garden to Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s Planting in a Post-Wild World, landscape architect’s played a critical role in deciphering environmental complexity. In his declaration, Dirk Sijmons, former chair of landscape architecture at TU Delft, showcased recent visualizations from the 2016 International Architectural Biennale, animating scenarios for offshore wind energy development in the Arctic.

2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak
2050: An Energetic Odyssey / Hans Tak

For Sijmons, “research and design at a large landscape scale” is less about project implementation, and more about building the cultural influence and political will needed to take on the challenges of the Anthropocene – the age of man.

Landscape architects diversified, to some extent

In her opening, Barbara Deutsch noted that the field of landscape architecture still has a major diversity problem, but it’s far more diverse than it was in 1966, when the profession was mostly white and male. Now, membership in ASLA is 36 percent female and now only 68 percent of landscape architecture graduates are Caucasian. And landscape architecture is a global practice, with tens of thousands of diverse practitioners across the world. Still, there is much more work to be done in the future to attract African Americans and Latinos to the field in the U.S.

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

Philadelphia Passes Historic “Soda Tax” to Fund Revamp of Parks

eastwick
Eastwick Playground Park / Nicole Westerman

The Philadelphia city council approved a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages. The “soda-tax”, as it is being called, will raise funds for parks and recreation center upgrades, pre-Kindergarten programs, community schools, and the city’s general fund, according to Mayor Jim Kenney.

The city council claims that soda-tax revenue will account for $91 million per year and $386 million over the next five years. About 15 percent of that revenue, or $58 million, is allotted for what the city is calling it’s Rebuild program, which includes parks and recreation center upgrades. Philadelphia’s parks and recreation facilities are notoriously underfunded.

One of the major goals of the Rebuild program is to address equity in the city, according to first deputy managing director Brian Abernathy.

“Everyone, no matter where they live, deserves quality recreation centers, open space and libraries.”

Abernathy added that the Rebuild initiative will conform with Philadelphia’s larger green infrastructure agenda by supporting “broader storm water management, energy efficiency, and sustainability goals.”

swingset-mcveigh
Swing set in McVeigh Park / Nicole Westerman

The bill was not passed without controversy, with opponents claiming it will be levied disproportionately on the poor. Last-minute negotiations designating a portion of the revenue towards shoring up gaps in the city’s budget further stoked opposition to the bill. Its approval has made Philadelphia only the second U.S. city to pass such a tax.

Mayor Kenney had been building political momentum for such an investment in public infrastructure prior to his election last November and financed research to find out what the opportunities are.

Chris Mendel, a landscape architect with Philadelphia-based Andropogon Associates, whose team helped lead a cost-estimate analysis of park upgrades, said Mayor Kenney’s staff approached his firm last October to analyze approximately 470 outdoor open spaces owned and operated by Philadelphia parks and recreation. Aided by data from planning and urban design office Interface Studio, Mendel and his team of Lauren Mandel, ASLA, and Patty West, Associate ASLA, had two months to complete the assessment.

“I came up with a survey method and we quickly chose some representative target sites to go see. 82 sites were physically visited. We were done with the assessments by mid-November.” Mendel said that in the waning days of the assessment, two parks staff members joined his team, helping to complete the assessment in time.

“As we finished up, everybody was hungry for numbers: how much this is really going to cost,” Mendel said. He and his team created two cost estimates for each site: One, a basic package that would make each park clean, safe, and ready to use; the second, a deluxe upgrade that would add sustainability and dynamism to the sites. “That’s where we added porous asphalt, nature play and water features.”

Mendel and his team then went over the estimates with seasoned parks staff, whose knowledge he said was invaluable to the process. “What we found was that the costs were not so bad.”

The portion of the soda tax revenue designated for Rebuild will be used to service debt on $300 million in bonds that the city is seeking, which will in turn be used with other private and public sources to help fund the project, according to Philadelphia Magazine.

An Urban Farm in Detroit Aims for Profit

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

In the Penrose neighborhood of Detroit, two landscape architects, partners in business and life, are testing out a new for-profit model: the market garden. While Detroit has acres of non-profit-run farms growing fresh fruit and vegetables that are then donated to communities, Ken Weikal, ASLA, and Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, who run GrowTown, want to show the residents of this poor community in Detroit and elsewhere that anyone can apply an intensive, efficient farming method to one-third of an acre, grow high-value produce in all four seasons, and make $50,000 – $70,000 a year.

But their market garden model is really just one component of a more ambitious plan they are leading in the community, with support from the Kresge Foundation, non-profits, affordable housing developers Sam Thomas and Cynthia and Joe Solaka, to create a “garden district.”

Penrose covers some 200 acres and about 335 homes, of which 10 percent are vacant. The area GrowTown and the developers are focused on, the Penrose Village housing community, comprises some 30 acres. The average income in the area is around $10,000 – $30,000 and some 26 – 37 percent live below the poverty line. Before GrowTown, a neighborhood design studio, got involved, there were few public spaces.

In 2013, GrowTown worked with school groups and architect Steve Flum to create a park, with neighborhood kids co-designing the layout and design of the space and the featured element: a serpent.

Penrose art park / Jared Green
Penrose art park / Jared Green

Across the street, the landscape architects worked with the kids to create a maze in the overgrown grasses of the empty lot, teaching them about history of these land puzzles in the process.

Penrose maze / Ken Weikal
Penrose maze / Ken Weikal

In both 2007 and 2013, sets of 30-plus affordable housing units were developed. Along with the later set of housing came a new farmhouse, a town meeting hall, which is right next to the demonstration market garden. There, Hagenbuch tends to her micro-greens every day, educating locals about how this intensive system works, and working alongside the Arab American and Caldean Council (AAC), which is also using the farm to educate the residents of Penrose about nutrition.

The farm will eventually be run independently by local farmers, but, in the meantime, Hagenbuch and Weikal are working hard to prove the four-season intensive growing model themselves, documenting all of their learning for a new toolkit funded by Kresge.

The tunnel house is open to the air in the spring and summer when it grows micro-greens, which sell great locally because they don’t travel well; tomatoes; and other high-value produce. In fall and winter, an extra layer of plastic is added to the top and the sides are closed up. Then, the mix changes to beets, kale, and swiss chard, which will grow in a Detroit winter, but at a slower rate.

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

Outside the tunnel house there are additional plots cultivated in warmer months. Future garden elements will include orchards, rows of berry bushes, and fruit-covered trellises.

Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green
Penrose market garden / Jared Green

For now, Hagenbuch sells her produce at local farmers’ markets, saying it’s too challenging to meet the stringent demands of restaurants’ timelines. While she earns hundreds per batch of micro-greens, she admitted that “it’s hard work to make money at this. You have to be very business-like about it.”

Micro-greens / Jared Green
Micro-greens / Jared Green

Weikal and Hagenbuch have a vision for these market farms taking root in a network in Penrose, creating a new kind of agricultural urban community. Weikal said: “If we had 10 of these market farms in Penrose, that’s a half million of year being generated in this community.”

They also think locals will buy the produce. “People want fresh food right in their neighborhood; they want to buy food from their neighbors,” said Weikal.

Still, they agree that there are some real obstacles, like a lack of understanding of their intensive SPIN farming method and a lack of commitment to these techniques. Furthermore, to really make this system work, farmers will need some fairly expensive equipment, like a walk-in cooler to store produce before market; a quick-green harvester, which enables growers to do 4 hours of micro-green harvesting in 5 minutes; and a flame weeder, which is needed to ensure weeds don’t sneak into empty plots. “There are some upfront costs associated with a tricked-out market garden,” Weikal explained. But all of this will be covered in the toolkit they are developing, and, hopefully, some loans or incentives can be offered to make these expenses less of a burden to new market farmers.

Weikal said that what they are trying to accomplish isn’t new. “In the 1880s, Paris had super-high density farms in the city. In the 20th century, during wars or disaster, many cities went to intensive farming. Today, in Cuba and Asia, a lot of food is grown in cities.” But he added that, “here in Detroit, where food is grown for social justice, the idea of farming for profit makes some people uncomfortable. ‘Is it inclusive?,’ they ask.”

But Hagenbuch and Weikal are thinking about long-term economic sustainability and a time when many of the foundations and non-profits have moved on to another city.

Duany: The Promise of Suburbia Has Been Betrayed

The transect / PlaceMakers
The transect / PlaceMakers

“The promise of suburbia — to live in nature amid the easy flow of cars — has been betrayed. Sprawl is not sustainable; its growth chokes on itself,” argued architect and urban planner Andrés Duany at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit.

Duany calls for using New Urbanism, an approach he and others have promoted for the past few decades, in order to “preserve nature.” New Urbanist developments can preserve nature because they can “make cities places people love to live in,” so they stop moving to the suburbs, contributing to sprawl. New Urbanist communities, he argues, are also inherently healthy and just, because there people “walk, so they don’t get fat,” and “you don’t need a car to get around.” In contrast, car-based communities are “un-just,” because the old can’t drive cars and the poor can’t afford them. Some 50 million Americans don’t have cars.

New Urbanism can also result in a more balanced relationship with nature. “In Europe, they had to integrate with nature. In contrast, in America, our relationship with the wilderness has been adversarial.” But Duany argues that if we use his model of the transect, which shows how cities can become denser as they move from untrammeled nature on the peripheries to dense urban cores, “we can bring nature into the city. Wildlife habitat can be assigned everywhere. The transect is also for bringing nature in.”

Sprawl, Duany argued, is rooted in a dendritic, inefficient, car-based system that must be overthrown with a new grid-based, walkable system. Furthermore, it’s one system or the other: “sprawl and new urbanism are incompatible and can’t be intermixed.”

Unfortunately, the “enemy” — sprawl — is backed by a range of “powerful” forces. There are “whole professions, like traffic engineers, who are vested in this system.” The solution is to provide these “administrators” with a new set of guidelines they can manage. “They just want to administer something. Let’s just change the manual, and then we can change what they administer.”

He envisions New Urbanist communities in which there are multiple choices that coincide with human nature, and the stages of life. These communities have a dense core that can sustain nightlife, which is critical for young people, “whose job it is to date and mate.” Once they’ve mated, they find a starter home, perhaps just out of the core. As they grown older and wealthier, they move closer to the periphery, where they have a larger house immersed in nature. Then, when they retire, they move back into a smaller apartment in the urban core.

Furthermore, human nature is to form hierarchies, and New Urbanist communities simply enable that basic tendency. “We can break up communities into wealthy mansions, mid-range, and low-range housing.” But for Duany, the key is they all live near each other in walkable communities, which enables a local economy, e.g. the maid and nanny live walking distance from the mansions. Duany is also all for allowing people to chose whether they want to live in a homogeneous or diverse community.

Duany said New Urbanists have enabled these kinds of neighborhoods by participating in writing the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Hope VI standards, which enabled 270,000 units of affordable housing to be added in a subtle way to mixed-income communities. “We can integrate but keep the housing for the poor to 10-20 percent.”

He concluded that 30-60 percent of Americans want to live in New Urbanist developments where this kind of set-up is possible. “We just need to level the playing field to let the market operate.” In these communities, “life is better; people are more satisfied.”

F. Kaid Benfield, senior advisor to PlaceMakers, and author of the great book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, followed Duany, making many of the arguments outlined in his book. However, he further emphasized the need to better “integrate nature into the urban fabric,” perhaps going beyond what Duany and the New Urbanist’s transect offers. “We need nature inside cities, the kind that fits well.” For Benfield, that largely means mid-size (8 acres or less) and pocket parks, along with lots of trees, green complete streets, and all other forms of small-scale green infrastructure. As an example of a perfect-sized park, he pointed to Russell Square in London, “which is a great size — just small enough to reach but large enough to escape in.”

While landscape architects and designers may find some things to agree with here, what was left out of this discussion was the idea of cities as ecosystems. University of Virginia professor and author Tim Beatley, with his biophilic urbanism, shows that dense, walkable cities like Singapore and Wellington, New Zealand, can also be more biodiverse and create those rich connections to nature that sustain life for many species, even in cities.

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

waterfall-olafur-eliasson-versailles-installation-art-france-anders-sune-berg_dezeen_1568_3
A towering waterfall appears to fall from midair into the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles / Dezeen

The Forgotten Space Under this Sao Paulo Highway Will Become a Hanging Garden and ParkCo.Exist, 6/2/16
“When an elevated highway was built in the middle of downtown São Paulo in 1971, the city said it was attempting to improve traffic. Instead, congestion got worse. The two-mile stretch of road, called Minhocão (‘Big Worm’) is now one of the most polluted parts of a city where smog kills thousands of people a year.”

DLANDstudio Launches Phase 1 Design for Rails-to-Trails QueensWayThe Architect’s Newspaper, 6/2/16
“After years of debate over what to do with the 60-year old abandoned Rockaway Long Island Railroad (LIRR), the coalition has been moving toward the goal of converting 3.5 miles of the railroad—which extends from Rego Park to Ozone Park—into a park similar to the High Line.”

A Look at Apple’s Insanely Ambitious Tree-Planting Plans for Its New Spaceship Campus  – Venturebeat, 6/4/16
“While construction crews work furiously to finish Apple’s mammoth new headquarters in Cupertino this year, another critical piece of the campus’ design is taking shape 100 miles to the east.”

Olafur Eliasson Installs Giant Waterfall at Palace of VersaillesDezeen, 6/6/16
“A towering waterfall appears to fall from midair into the Grand Canal at the Palace of Versailles as part of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s latest exhibition (+ slideshow).”

Design Team Led by Mia Lehrer Picked for New Downtown L.A. Park The Los Angeles Times, 6/9/16
“A group led by landscape architecture firm Mia Lehrer & Associates has won a design competition for the 2-acre park, on the site of a former state office building adjacent to Grand Park at the foot of City Hall, city officials announced Thursday.”

His Landscape Designs Take an Artist’s (Quirky) VisionThe Los Angeles Times, 6/10/16
“If there were a competition for tackling out-of-the-ordinary landscaping projects, Mitch Kalamian, a landscape designer, would be on auto entry.”

Sensory, Universally Accessible Playground Designed for Chanticleer Park The Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/12/16
“The Santa Cruz Playground Project and Santa Cruz County Department of Parks, Open Space, and Cultural Services revealed designs Sunday for a $4 million wheelchair-accessible playground planned for Chanticleer Park in Live Oak.”

Parks + Community = Innovation

parks2
Parks Without Borders – Before / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks Without Borders / NYC Parks and Recreation
Parks Without Borders  – After / NYC Parks and Recreation

How can communities become more deeply involved in the process of creating parks? How can parks reflect communities’ best vision of themselves? Exciting projects that answer these questions were discussed at the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference on the “nature of communities.”

Communities’ desire for improved park access can result in simple yet effective innovations. Mitchell Silver, the new parks and recreation commissioner in New York City, is piloting a new approach — Parks Without Borders — that aims to remove physical barriers, like chain-link fences, from the city’s parks. The parks and recreation department asked residents which parks would benefit most from improved accessibility. Some 6,000 New Yorkers responded with 692 parks and then 8 parks in all boroughs were selected to test the concept. In these pilots, the parks department will soon test out more accessible entrances, signage, and edges, and better incorporate park-adjacent spaces into parks. As Silver explained, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, said that “the sidewalk next to the park is actually the outer edge of the park.” 150 years later the NYC parks department is taking these words to heart to remove barriers to parks in communities that want greater openness and equity.

Once communities empower themselves, they can also create parks that no designer could make. For Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA, former NYC parks and recreation commissioner and now a senior executive at the Trust for Public Land, “cooperative, community-based processes can lead to new and rejuvenated parks” that break down barriers and also reflect local arts and culture. As an example, he pointed the QueensWay in Queens, New York, “the people’s High Line,” which will eventually run through the most “diverse community on the planet,” where some 100 different ethnic groups will line the route. Trust for Public Land, DLANDstudio Architecture & Landscape Architecture, and others are working with the Friends of the QueensWay and the communities to turn 3.5 miles of abandoned railroad track into a “cultural greenway, in addition to a system of green infrastructure.

QueensWay plan / Friends of QueensWay
QueensWay plan / Friends of QueensWay

In Richmond, California, a poor community of about 15,000 just north of Oakland, there is a high level of gun violence; “in fact, it’s the 7th most dangerous community in the U.S,” said Toody Maher, the founder of Pogo Park. The city plopped down $300,000 worth of playground equipment in a local park, which locals then “tagged” with spray paint and tried to burn down. Where others would throw up their hands, Maher saw an opportunity to design a new park with the community. “We realized we needed to build the park from the inside out. Instead of just hiring a landscape architect, the community built a 3D model, actually measuring out in the space what they wanted. ” With a $2 million grant from the state parks department, Maher and the Pogo Park neighborhood steering committee hired neighbors of the park to build it, even hiring local graffiti artists to become park artists. “Pogo Park is community-designed, built, and installed. It’s now a green oasis that radiates change out. Everyone wants to live near the park.”

Pogo Park / Richie Unterberger
Pogo Park / Richie Unterberger

Jennifer Toy, ASLA, co-founder of Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), walked us through another bottom-up community park project in North Shore, California, farm country in the Coachella Valley. Toy spent about a year just listening in the community, a 3,400-person ghost town “on the periphery of the periphery,” a place at the edge of the shrinking Salton Sea, which reeks of decaying fish. While the town received some financing to create a small 1/8-acre park, Toy learned that park didn’t meet their needs, so the community and her team co-developed a plan for a 5-acre park over the course of some 150 open meetings over multiple years. The result of all this community building is a park design that features “a shaded pavilion, a restroom/bike shop building, soccer field, skate plaza, sport court, playground, walking paths, and native plantings.” The park is expected to open later this year.

North Shore design concept / KDI
North Shore design concept / KDI

Lastly, artists can also act as agents of innovation in communities and get people to see themselves in a new light. Streets, another form of public space, can become linear parks that connect people. Seitu Jones, an artist based in St. Paul, Minnesota, creates artistic interventions around the food system. He believes any artist working in a community “must leave it more beautiful than they found it.” With Create, which launched in 2015, Jones made St. Paul more beautiful by creating a temporary half-mile-long public space in the middle of a street, featuring a half-mile-long table with healthy foods. It took some two years for Jones to reach out to all the communities, bring them to the table, and get the approvals to shut down the street.

Create, St. Paul / Walker Art Center
Create, St. Paul / Walker Art Center

Jones brought diverse communities “who had forgotten how to cook” together to learn and share.

A Vision for Equitable Community Development

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

In the 1960s, amid rampant gang violence, drug crime, and white flight, Arthur Hall, a dancer and choreographer, created the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the poor and mostly African American community of Fairchild-Hartranft in north Philadelphia. The center successfully taught black culture, art, dance, and music in a safe space for decades. Then, in the 1980s, Lily Yeh, an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, got involved and grew the center into a neighborhood arts and cultural hub, the internationally-renowned Village of Arts & Humanities, which now teaches over 400 local students art, advocacy, and leadership after school every day.

Aviva Kapust, the current executive director of the Village, gave a tour of the project during the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference called the Nature of Communities. As we spent the morning walking through the network of 15 parks and plazas, which total some 15,000 square feet across multiple city blocks, Kapust explained that the Village’s public spaces have become “designated safe zones in the neighborhood.” While there is still high levels of crime in this part of Germantown, “it doesn’t happen here.” And while nearby painted houses are often “tagged” by local artists, who leave their unique signature, the murals that oversee the public spaces never are.

Yeh and the surrounding community slowly transformed vacant lots into public parks and plazas. Kapust said Yeh had no idea how to create a park, so she engaged the neighborhood kids, who then brought in their families. “Together, they undertook a process of co-creation,” learning as they went how to plant trees, mold cement benches, set sidewalks, create mosaics — building community all the while.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village Heart, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Kapust believes the space works so well because it “imports symbols from other cultures and projects then back out again.”

But the imagery Yeh selected also purposefully “signals guardianship.” Angels oversee pathways; spirit animals watch over the public spaces. “There is an intentional mesh of spiritual messages into something universal.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Mural, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Yeh just started building these spaces without city government permission, but now they actually own the parks and plazas, which brings its own set of challenges, including financial liability. And simply maintaining the spaces — not developing them — costs some $70,000 per year.

Meditation Park, which was created in the early 90s, is something Gaudi would have loved. A river is formed through mosaic tiles. Colors reflect the Islamic and West African cultures found in the neighborhood. James “Big Man” Maxton, a former drug addict, became the village’s long-time operations director and mosaic artist. The result of his work and many other volunteers is a “beautiful plaza, like something you would happen upon in Barcelona.”

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Meditation Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

A few doors down, Magical Garden is in the process of being revamped as a “natural habitat for urban wildlife.” Annuals are being replaced with perennials, and there will be natural stormwater management systems. Next door is a quarter-acre urban farm with permaculture plots, a solar-powered aquaponic system, and outdoor pizza oven, where culinary education and demonstrations are held.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Magical Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Memorial Park, once a vacant lot, honors those who have died in the neighborhood to drug violence or addiction or lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The now-shuttered neighborhood high school had the highest number of alumni to die in Vietnam than any other school — some 64 students. Dream totems, made with a West African artist, invite visitors to remember.

Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Memorial Garden, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

Interestingly, not all the parks have been successful. Some of the ones farthest away from the village center are underused. Lion’s Park, for example, may be divested as it has become an “overgrown hazard,” said Kapust.

Lion's Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green
Lion’s Park, Village of Arts and Humanities / Jared Green

As gentrification creeps north, can there be a positive future for this unique arts and cultural neighborhood? Kapust says the Village is looking 25-30 years ahead and trying to figure out whether they should use “arts and culture to generate community economic development, or aim for community economic development, using arts as a tool; they are two separate things.” She added that whatever plays out, “we want to keep the needs of the people in this neighborhood at the forefront.”

Kapust wants to reach out to equitable developers as well, taking them a vision and plan for maintaining the character of the community. “The theory is 100 families is a manageable group. We could support those 100 families with jobs and their own homes for 100 years.” Those 100 families, who would take up about 5 blocks, can then maintain the neighborhood culture, support local shops, and create leverage. “It’s basically socialism,” Kapust laughed, or at least an expanded neighborhood cooperative. To make this happen, a workable financing model needs to be connected to the right non-profit developer.