Yu is founder of the Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and founder and principal designer of Turenscape. His firm, which has a staff of more than 400, plans and designs landscapes that “combat flooding while repairing ecological damage.”
“The award means that no matter our differences among peoples and nations, there is one common ground we have to hold together: taking care of planet Earth. We have to get together to heal this ill planet,” Yu said.
He also sees the award as a win for developing countries like China. “It is a huge encouragement for those who are working hard to establish themselves from the grassroots; for those who made their career in underdeveloped regions, in the most difficult parts of the world.”
In an interview, Yu offered his thoughts on future opportunities and challenges for landscape architects. He outlined his design philosophy and how it can serve as a roadmap for leadership on nature-based solutions and climate and biodiversity action.
Yu foresees an explosion in demand for landscape architects in China and other developing countries. “I am expecting revolutionary development of the profession of landscape architecture in the developing world where landscape architects are badly needed.”
“I believe landscape architects are coming into a golden era. We are positioning ourselves at the forefront in the battle for climate adaptation and planetary healing, particularly in China, India, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa, where climate change is mingled with issues of urbanization, industrialization, and food security.”
“But there are also many obstacles that landscape architects need to overcome,” he added.
“The top obstacle is our lack of capacity. We need to breakthrough the boundaries of professional and disciplinary stratification. This will involve restructuring institutions, changing school programs, and redefining landscape architecture at a much larger scope, toward the art of survival.”
Yu founded his China-based firm Turenscape in 1998 with an ambitious goal — “nature, man, and spirits as one.”
“Tu-Ren is two characters in Chinese. Tu means dirt, earth, or the land, while Ren means people, man, or human being. Once these two characters come together, Tu-ren, it means ‘Earth Man,’ a relationship between land and people. The firm’s philosophy is to recreate the harmony between land and people and create sustainable environments for the future. We act in the name of the Heaven (Nature) and as messengers of the spirits of our native forebears,” he explained.
Yu brings that philosophy to his work planning and designing nature-based solutions that integrate wetlands, mangroves, and forests.
“Any sustainable landscape is nature-based. Landscape is a synonym for nature when one discusses landscape architecture in the context of its sister professions such as architecture and urban planning. Landscape architecture is about using knowledge and skills related to adaptation, transformation, and the management of nature to harness ecosystem services — such as provision, regulation, life support, beauty, and spiritual benefit — for humanity’s long-term and short-term needs. This is the essential core of nature-based solutions.”
And he also shared some news about how his combined practice and academic work are advancing these goals. “The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Peking University to establish a joint research program at our campus focusing on nature-based solution best practices. This is largely the landscape planning, design, and management work of Turenscape.”
Yu believes landscape architects’ ability to bring together multiple disciplines and leverage science and engineering will help solve the climate crisis.
“Landscape architects play a key role in addressing climate change, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation, particularly the latter. Landscape architecture is the cornerstone of the intellectual mansion of arts, sciences, and engineering that jointly stand together to address climate change. That is why I am so glad to see landscape architecture recently listed as a STEM discipline in the U.S.”
He envisions landscape architects leading the way, pulling together a range of professions to form enduring solutions.
“Ian McHarg defined a landscape architect as a conductor, who orchestrates disciplines and professionals and integrates all abiotic and biotic processes into a harmoniously performing ecosystem through the skill of designing in the physical medium of landscape.”
Each year, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) issues its ParkScore, which ranks the park systems of the 100 most populous cities in the U.S. This year, the organization also explored the positive health outcomes of top-scoring cities, looking at more than 800 innovative programs and practices that integrate park and healthcare systems.
Their findings are collected in a new report, The Power of Parks to Promote Health, which offers smart strategies for making parks a more formal part of community health programs. Their inclusive, equitable approaches can help ensure more communities experience the physical and mental health benefits of public green spaces.
TPL finds that in the 25 cities with the top ParkScore rankings, “people are on average 9 percent less likely to suffer from poor mental health, and 21 percent less likely to be physically inactive than those in lower- ranked cities. These patterns hold even after controlling for race/ethnicity, income, age, and population density.”
And in 26 cities, efforts are underway to deepen connections between parks and healthcare systems. In these cities, “a healthcare institution is funding, staffing, or referring patients to health programs in parks as part of efforts to improve patient and community health.”
TPL wants to see even more cities make these connections. “Park administrators and health professionals should think of parks as part of a holistic public health strategy,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin, senior vice president at Trust for Public Land (TPL), co-editor of Making Healthy Places, and one of the co-authors of the report.
Numerous studies by landscape architecture researchers and other scientists have demonstrated the health benefits of spending time in green spaces, even if it’s just 20 minutes. Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, and William Sullivan, ASLA, and others have done much to quantify those benefits.
Studies have found that exposure to nature in cities can improve “hormone levels, heart rate, mood, the ability to concentrate, and other physiological and psychological measures,” TPL writes.
Specific benefits include: “lower blood pressure, improved birth outcomes, reduced cardiovascular risk, less anxiety and depression, better mental concentration, healthier child development, enhanced sleep quality, and more.”
Other research has demonstrated the long-term benefits of spending time in nature on “body weight, cardiovascular disease risk, and life expectancy.”
“If we had a medicine that delivered as many benefits as parks, we would all be taking it,” Frumkin said. “And they do those things without adverse side effects and at minimal cost.”
But park inequities, and therefore health inequities, are also real. TPL states that “neighborhoods where most residents identified as Black, Hispanic and Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Asian American and Pacific Islander had access to an average of 43 percent less park acreage than predominantly white neighborhoods. Similar park-space inequities existed in low-income neighborhoods across cities.”
“Over 100 million people across the country, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. In California, 42 percent of low-income parents report that their children have never participated in outdoor activities.”
The report brings together a range of scientific findings that clearly show why all communities need nearby access to high-quality parks. With inclusive parks spread more equitably throughout cities, health programs can better reach historically underserved communities.
These findings can help landscape architects, planners, policymakers, developers, and community advocates make the case for more parks and the new public health programs that can amplify their benefits:
“Close-to-home parks are associated with lower obesity rates and improved health in both young people and adults.”
“Staffed programming, such as fitness classes, dramatically increased physical activity. Each additional supervised activity increased park use by 48 percent and moderate to vigorous physical activity time by 37 percent.”
A 2014 study in the journal Preventive Medicine, which relied on five years of data on individuals’ body mass index (BMI) and characteristics of nearby parks in New York City, found that “greater neighborhood park access and greater park cleanliness were associated with lower BMI among adults.”
A study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which examined children ages 6 to 12 in Valencia, Spain, found that “park and playground access was ‘significantly associated’ with increased physical activity, especially on weekdays, and contributed to lower BMIs overall.”
A 2022 study in the journal Health & Place explored the rates of depression and anxiety among older people during the pandemic. “It found that those with access to neighborhood parks were much less likely to report symptoms of depression or to screen positive for anxiety than those without.”
“A 2023 study conducted in Philadelphia and published in the journal PLOS ONE found that those who lived closest to green space reported better physical health and less stress than those who lived farther. Actually visiting green spaces during the pandemic was linked to better mental and physical health and less loneliness.”
In their report, TPL also outlined the climate benefits of parks and how they can reduce the dangerous health impacts of extreme heat. Assembling the “highest-resolution heat data” available in the U.S., they found a “stark difference in temperature between neighborhoods that have parks nearby and those that do not.”
Analyzing “thermal satellite imagery for 14,000 cities and towns,” TPL researchers found that areas within a “10-minute walk of a park can be as much as 6 degrees cooler than neighborhoods outside that range.”
The report offers examples from leading park and health coalitions in cities, outlining how public agencies, non-profit community organizations, and healthcare providers came together to leverage public park space to improve health outcomes.
“In New York City, for example, a program called Shape Up NYC offers free classes in everything from yoga to Zumba to Pilates in easy-to-access locations: libraries, public-housing complexes, recreation centers, and, of course, parks. In Columbus, Ohio, doctors at a local hospital prescribe 11-week fitness programs, provided for free by the city’s parks department, to patients struggling with obesity and high blood pressure,” TPL writes.
A set of 14 recommendations then outline how park and healthcare systems can better integrate. Many of their recommendations can inform the planning and design work of landscape architects.
One recommendation worth highlighting — “ensure that everybody lives within a 10-minute walk (about a half mile) of a park.” TPL states that proximity is important but so are “quality, activation, and safety.” And “creative place-making initiatives that incorporate local character through cultural elements, such as public art and bilingual signage,” are also key.
“Prioritize park investment in historically underserved communities
Develop transit connections and guided tours, like youth programs
Bring parks to the people through pop-ups and mobile offerings
Offer all-ability or ‘try before you buy’ fitness and wellness programs [in parks] explicitly designed for beginners.
Encourage park visitors to try something new with low-commitment offerings such as drop-in sports (e.g., adult recess) or free or low-cost gear rentals.
Make it easy for community groups to use parks and recreation facilities as their primary gathering venues.
Refer, prescribe, or host patients with health programming in parks and recreation facilities.
Sponsor the costs of wellness programs, sports leagues, and other health classes as part of any free fitness membership benefit.
Invest in capital improvements in parks as community health investments.
Work with parks and recreation agencies to map and identify park deficits as part of Community Health Needs Assessments.
Continue to partner with parks and recreation agencies to reach key patient populations with health services and education.
Partner with parks and recreation agencies to evaluate the impact of park initiatives on key patient and community health outcomes.”
Chris Hardy, ASLA, is senior associate at Sasaki and founder of Carbon Conscience. He is Co-chair of the ASLA Climate Action Committee Subcommittee on Carbon Drawdown and Biodiversity. He was a 2022-2023 Landscape Architecture Foundation Innovation and Leadership Fellow.
The purpose of Carbon Conscience is to make it easier to have an intuitive understanding of the climate impacts of design proposals. It’s designed for early-phase design work. It’s for landscape architects, architects, urban planners, and urban designers. It’s even for community advocates who may want to get a better grasp of the carbon potential of what’s being proposed.
For example, if there’s a multi-housing family development with multiple buildings and landscape, the designer of the project could sketch out architecture and landscape land uses and get a high-level understanding of the carbon impacts of building that project, focusing on the embodied carbon in construction.
Embodied carbon is what it takes to build the project; the carbon emitted to produce, ship to site, and install the construction materials. There’s also a way to tally biogenic stored carbon, which is the carbon locked up in things like wood materials, or sequestered carbon, which is the carbon drawn down out of the atmosphere by planting and restored ecosystems. We accounted for the probable carbon sequestered by living systems over a period of 60 years, to correlate with the typical lifecycle study period for buildings.
What we realized using Pathfinder, Tally, and other tools is you usually need detailed quantities of materials in a project before you can get a meaningful estimate of the global warming impacts of a given project. The problem with that is the biggest potential for change is in the earlier design phases, when maybe you’re fundamentally challenging or deciding what the framework of a project is.
What are some of the new features of Carbon Conscience v2 you’re excited about?
In version 2, we created an entirely new landscape baseline materials database. There are now over 140 different landscape materials with carbon factors that include mean values as well as low and high standard deviation. Carbon factors are how much carbon it takes to make a given material. For example, a carbon factor for concrete would be so many kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of concrete. With version 2, we have a much more accurate and defensible tool.
We were also able to get user feedback from the version 1 beta testers. We realized we had two types of users. We have what I like to call the noodlers, who wanted to sketch something simple, test it, and see how things work. The second group were the deep dive users who wanted to gamify the tool. They wanted to use the tool more actively — to test, iterate, and get more sophisticated material options.
In Version 2, we’ve made things a lot easier for the noodlers. We’ve reconstructed the user experience to be more intuitive. We’re going to post new user tutorials. And we also made it more open to planners who might not be in technical drawing tools on a day-to-day basis. For the deep dive folks, we provided the ability to use a lot more materials and land use options, and the ability to edit assumptions for those land uses.
Carbon Conscience is a scale bigger than individual sites that might be put in the Pathfinder. And it’s a phase or two earlier.
In Pathfinder, you need to know how many square meters or square yards of different paving, furnishings, etc, and numbers of trees. You may not know that at a planning phase. You can use Carbon Conscience even before there’s a defined project to bid on, when you have a rough idea of what the project is or could be, and you want to evaluate options. Carbon Conscience is for planning and concept design phases only.
Once you go beyond those phases, it would be best, as a workflow, for landscape architects to transfer their project into Pathfinder. We’re working with Pamela to connect our APIs, so projects can graduate from Carbon Conscience into Pathfinder. And Pathfinder is going to refer to our dataset as they move forward with their updated version this coming year. We’re very closely linked with Pathfinder and collaborating with the Climate Positive Design team.
Carbon Conscience also has an architectural dataset sourced from the Carbon Leadership Forum. It’s at a whole building lifecycle analysis approach, averaged out by floor-level of resolution. And we’re going to be moving forward with collaborating with the Epic tool by EHDD in Version 3, which will be coming this fall.
You’ve used the Carbon Conscience platform to make smart planning and design decisions for the 600-acre Ellinikon Metropolitan Park in Athens, Greece, which will transform an abandoned airport into what will be the largest coastal park in Europe. You have stated the top three carbon reduction strategies of the project were: 1) swapping out imported soils for amended soils; 2) reducing the need for new concrete by using other materials; 3) reusing concrete found on site. How did you use the platform to figure this out?
When we started the Ellinikon, we had a high-level master plan for the park and public space authored by Foster Partners and their team. In the beginning of our engagement, we were asked to create a concept plan. We started by mapping out the Foster plan in Carbon Conscience, using that as a benchmark. We quickly realized that it was going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for us to be climate neutral before our restored ecosystems would hit their carbon carrying capacity.
I wanted to define that term, because I think it’s something that we all need to be aware of as landscape architects. The carbon carrying capacity for an ecosystem is how much carbon an ecosystem can reasonably store and sequester by the time it hits maturity. In most ecosystems, as they age and become fully mature, they store less and less carbon. They become relatively static carbon stores. But that’s not true of all ecosystems. Wetlands are different, and I can talk about that for a whole hour. But for Ellinikon, this was critical, as Mediterranean ecosystems generally store and sequester much less carbon than temperate or tropical humid forests.
What we realized in our early sketches of Ellinikon is that we needed to change business as usual. We started looking at different strategies in Carbon Conscience, which gave us a way to include the client in the discussion. We even had the client come into the tool themselves, so they could play with the assumptions and start tweaking them with us in workshops. They became personally invested in the development of the project carbon goals, and that gave our team the social capital to challenge business as usual assumptions in site design as we moved forward into technical documentation phases.
As we used the tool, we decided to hugely reduce the amount of paving and increase the area dedicated to restoration style planting, as opposed to gardenesque planting or lawns. Now in the final design, the only lawns in the project have to work for a living. They’re for active uses, sports events. Ornamental horticulture is almost entirely defined by aromatic gardens that are passively maintained in that climate. And about 70 percent of the site is now restoration-style ecology.
We also used it to challenge our material assumptions. If we were swapping out our concrete hardscapes for resin-bonded aggregate hardscape or a salvaged concrete hardscape, that gave us huge savings.
In the design guidelines released with Carbon Conscience, you outlined seven principles designers can follow to reduce the climate impacts of their projects. One is to prioritize reuse. How can landscape architects reuse materials they find on existing sites they may be redesigning? And what do you think is needed to make reuse more cost effective at smaller scales?
Cost efficiency is totally dependent on the quality and scale of the material. In some cases, it can be a lot cheaper if you’re just resurfacing asphalt pavement and not resetting it. If you’re just re-setting existing cobbles in a particular streetscape, that’s extremely cost effective. It gets trickier when you’re doing substantial amounts of work to the material itself. For example, if you want salvaged concrete — let’s say crushed salvaged concrete for riprap in a very small site — that might not be cost feasible.
If you have a site an acre or more, specialized equipment like concrete crushers can be viable. But in the United States, we’re already diverting over 50 percent of our construction waste to some kind of salvaged facility, and that includes lot of concrete work. There’s already some efficiency where you can salvage aggregates coming from demolition debris in most major metropolitan areas.
A big part of reuse is also thinking about the end-of-life of our designs and materials. It’s a lot easier to crush, salvage, and reuse, or up-cycle or down-cycle concrete if it doesn’t have steel reinforcing in it. Without steel reinforcement, you can start cutting it like stone. If we think about our concrete pavement profiles, maybe we make them a little thicker to avoid having steel in them, so that in the next generation of that concrete pavement, it’ll be a lot easier to salvage it for reuse.
In the guidelines you also call for using natural and locally-sourced materials wherever possible. What are the climate benefits of these approaches? And are there projects that have done this that inspire you?
When we can avoid emissions associated with the making of the material itself — like the emissions that go into making clinker for cement, smelting for metals, or complex hydro-chemical processes to make plastics — that dramatically reduces the carbon factors of the material itself.
When we specify natural materials, the material is there; it just needs to be cut, shaped, and moved. And those emissions can be a lot less. I’m talking about things like stone, aggregate, wood, bamboo, and rammed earth, which are naturally occurring and just need be manipulated to become construction products.
When we talk about locally-sourced materials, we’re avoiding the transportation carbon cost that regional or more distant materials can have. Unfortunately, in the United States almost all of our transportation for construction materials is generally truck, which can have the highest carbon factor of almost any typical transportation options. Local sourcing becomes a huge factor for landscapes in particular, because most of our materials are massive and come at a high carbon transportation cost.
Right now, I’m focused on our Ellinikon project in Greece where we are trying to locally source most of the materials on site. We have the benefit of having stone quarries less than 20 miles from the site. And we have the benefit of mining material on the site. There’s a wonderful opportunity when you think about sourcing local stone in particular, because usually you’re tapping into a vernacular, a material tradition. There are regional craftsmanship traditions people take pride in.
You also emphasize the value of nature-based solutions and promoting ecological preservation and restoration. How do healthy ecosystems and nature-based solutions create positive climate outcomes? Do biodiverse, ecologically-rich landscapes store more carbon?
Only in living systems do we have economically viable ways to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Geoengineering solutions are speculative businesses. Trees and plants are very efficient at what they do. And it’s very hard for technology to replicate those processes in an economically viable way.
One of the great benefits of nature-based solutions is the co-benefits. Rain gardens not only contribute to stormwater management but reduce the fundamental need for grey infrastructure. They’re replacing the concrete pipes and catch basins. And in the right context, they’re a high-carbon sequestrating landscape. And when you start layering in biodiversity benefits, it becomes an even richer proposal.
Biodiversity is more of a correlation with carbon sequestration than a causation. For example, a Spartina salt marsh is not the most biodiverse planting design but it is super carbon sequestering. However, when you compare two different landscapes, the more structurally complex an ecosystem is — the more trophic levels, the more physical levels of living organisms, such an overstory, an understory, and rich mycorrhizal horizon in the soils — the more carbon it is going to store. And it will usually be more biodiverse than a structurally simplistic ecosystem. What we want is structural diversity and complexity; we want resilient, complex, adapted ecosystems.
Most kinds of forest have a carbon carrying capacity, but many wetlands and some prairie do not. Wetlands offer a linear rather than sigmoidal sequestration of carbon. Over the long-term, wetlands can be incredibly high performance from a carbon perspective. Maybe the solution isn’t always planting trees to offset a project. Maybe it is protecting or investing in the restoration of a wetland or a prairie.
Sanders highlighted the results of a five-year assessment of the LAF fellowship program and its efforts to grow the next generation of diverse landscape architecture leaders. The assessment shows that past fellows are shaping the future of the built environment in key public, non-profit, and private sector roles.
And she introduced the latest class of six fellows, who focused on climate, equity, technology, and storytelling:
Chris Hardy, ASLA, senior associate at Sasaki, used his fellowship to significantly advance the Carbon Conscience tool he has been developing over the past few years. The web-based tool is meant to help landscape architects, planners, urban designers, and architects make better land-use decisions in early design phases when the opportunity to reduce climate impacts is greatest.
Carbon Conscience is also designed to work in tandem with the Pathfinder tool, created by LAF Fellow Pamela Conrad, ASLA, as part of Climate Positive Design. Once the parameters of a site have been established, Pathfinder enables landscape architects to improve their designs and materials choices to reach a climate positive state faster.
Hardy examined more than 300 studies to develop robust evidence to support a fully revamped version of Carbon Conscience, which will launch in July 2023. He found that “landscape architecture projects can be just as carbon intensive as architecture projects per square foot.” He wondered whether the only climate responsible approach is to stop building new projects altogether. “Are new projects worth the climate cost?”
After months of research, he believes decarbonizing landscape architecture projects will be “very hard,” but not impossible. He called for a shift away from the carbon-intensive designs of the past. To reduce emissions, landscape architects need to take a “less is more” approach; use local and natural materials; and increase space in their projects for ecological restoration, which can boost carbon sequestration. He cited Sasaki’s 600-acre mega-project in Athens Greece — the Ellinikon Metropolitan Park — as a model for how to apply Carbon Conscience, make smart design decisions, and significantly improve carbon performance upfront. “There are exciting design opportunities — this is not just carbon accounting.”
Landscape architect Erin Kelly, ASLA, based in Detroit, Michigan, sees enormous potential in using vacant land in cities for carbon sequestration. Her goal is to connect vacant lands with the growing global offset marketplace, which offered 155 million offsets in 2022 that earned $543 million. And she sees opportunities for landscape architects to work with carbon developers to improve offset projects.
Carbon offsets are purchased by organizations to reduce their climate impacts. One offset credit equals one ton of greenhouse gas emissions. Offsets are verified by third-party verification companies and then listed on carbon registries. Like other projects, there are carbon developers, who purchase or lease land to grow trees or protect natural carbon sinks, like wetlands. Projects are monitored, usually over a 25 to 100 year period. But there is no one price for an offset, and “the quality varies,” Kelly said.
There is a need for new approaches to offsets that generates more direct income for communities and incentivizes landscape health by factoring in biodiversity. Sequestering carbon in cities like Detroit provides an opportunity for urban communities to benefit, but to date urban offset programs like City Forest Credits have been limited and need to be scaled up.
She estimates that 31 million people in the U.S. now live in vacant land communities. Using machine learning and satellites, Kelly is developing a national atlas of vacant land ripe for redevelopment as offsets by city governments, community groups, and companies. “Landscape architects haven’t been involved in setting up these offerings,” but can tell “compelling stories” and influence how they are developed. Locally-managed, small-scale offsets can provide greater financial benefits and community health and environmental co-benefits.
Robert Levinthal, a PhD student at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), is focused on Mega-Eco Projects, or very large-scale nature-based solutions. Hundreds of these projects, like the Great Green Wall in Sub-Saharan Africa, are in development at different scales around the world. They are meant to combat desertification, protect biodiversity and connect habitat, and preserve and restore watersheds. They may be in urban or rural areas.
Unfortunately, few landscape architects are involved in these projects. For Levinthal, this means the project leaders are “missing critical insights,” as landscape architects can help ensure these massive projects balance the needs of humans and non-human species. Landscape architects can plan and design the connections between large-scale natural systems and communities.
In Senegal, Levinthal explored the implications of the Great Green Wall himself. Initially proposed in the 1950s, the plan envisions a 50-kilometer-wide belt of trees from the east to west coasts in Sub-Saharan Africa as an anti-desertification measure that will prevent the Sahara Desert from further expanding south. The African Union, which supports the initiative, has scaled down the effort but it still remains ambitious — with the goal of restoring 100 million hectares of land and storing 250 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But Levinthal noted that out of $14 billion spent on the Great Green Wall to date, just $20 million has reached Senegal. And desertification is happening outside the Great Green Wall area.
Levinthal sees the need to better connect green belt planning with community master planning and eco-tourism development. Senegal, like other Sub-Saharan African countries, is “sadly missing landscape architects and urban designers” who can weave parks, community spaces, recreational areas, and transportation systems into ecological restoration efforts.
And pastoralists remain deeply underserved. He called for a renewed focus on regional and land-use planning among landscape architects and deeper partnerships with indigenous peoples. To learn more, look out for an upcoming symposium at UPenn, October 13-14, 2023.
“We try to be light on the land. We try to do minimal engineering, with minimal impact. We try to design less. This is part of the decarbonization process. This is part of climate action for the profession of landscape architecture,” explained Jenny Jones, ASLA, with landscape architecture firm Terremoto.
In Laguna Beach, Califonia, Terremoto designed a low-carbon, low-impact, no-waste 4-acre public landscape for the Laguna Canyon Foundation, an organization dedicated to “preserving, protecting, enhancing, and promoting the 22,000-acre South Coast Wilderness.”
“Our office increasingly believes that the best future landscapes and gardens need to be of a replicable small scale, as materially closed-loop as possible, avoid bureaucratic red tape, and be of, by, and for the communities and creatures they serve.”
The Laguna Canyon landscape was a “hurt site,” Jones said. Once an illegal dump, rain helped pull waste down the hillside. But that changed when the Foundation leased the public land and began a multi-year process of clean-up and ecological restoration.
The machines used in the clean-up effort left three terraces, which Terremoto decided not to change. “The site had been through a lot of trauma, so we decided to take a quiet, loving approach,” Jones said. To manage stormwater, Terremoto worked with the terraces and also designed a network of bioswales lined with local stones, which Jones called “softer and amorphous.”
“Our approach to grading and drainage was really to minimize grading altogether and simply bolster existing natural drainage patterns. This meant less machinery and carbon, and required we work with the land and the existing conditions rather than impose a new, bold thing,” Godshall said.
California’s record rainfall caused by a series of atmospheric rivers also meant the firm needed to return later to modify the design of some swales. Jones sees this as a plus.
She said Terremoto’s goal is to take an iterative approach, based in continuous stewardship, rather than go in with a “build it and never return” mindset that results in the “hard engineering found in many Californian coastal projects.”
Jones wanted to give the site room to adapt and evolve. For her, that demonstrates true climate responsibility. “We need to continue to participate with the site. It’s not finished. This is what stewardship is about.”
Climate considerations, along with a limited budget, led the firm to source many materials locally and use what was available. Local materials means lower embodied carbon, as there are less greenhouse gas emissions released from transporting materials.
Timber logs have become benches. They were produced by Angel City Lumber, a company based in Los Angeles that reuses city trees felled by drought, disease, or age.
“So many trees in Los Angeles are coming down but they can be salvaged and repurposed instead of sent to the landfill,” Jones said. Due to smart material choices, the carbon sequestered in the trees has been saved. And reusing the trees eliminated the climate impacts of sourcing new materials.
The project includes both stone found on the site and stone brought in from another project, where too much was ordered by mistake. “Laguna Canyon is about no waste; we found a way to use it.” But the stone trucked in was still local, originally sourced from a quarry in Santa Paula, 100 miles away. Gravel and rip rap also traveled a similar distance to the project site.
Above the terraces, the form of four simple wood structures was guided by both function and beauty. The Foundation restoration team had been operating out of a trailer but needed new structures to support trail and field work. The wood structures serve as a place to store “cacti pups” — cuttings from grown cacti that will take root elsewhere — and native plant seedlings.
New landscape plantings near the structures were designed to blend with the existing native landscape but also modified in places to accommodate the needs of the fire department. “Fire fighters don’t love native plants because they have evolved with fire so they are combustible. This is a contradiction.”
Wood steps and trails then take visitors down to a hollow where the Foundation had cleared an area taken over by invasive ice plants. Once the invasives were removed, “we wanted to put something back. To us, it felt like a destination,” Jones said.
Now, the space, ringed with the reclaimed timber logs, features a wood circle made from FSC-certified Western red cedar wood, “most likely from the Pacific Northwest or Canada,” Godshall said.
Here, one of the limitations of the wood market for landscape architects became apparent. “Using local wood is often counterintuitively more expensive, as the producers of local woods are generally small businesses with greater overhead than, say, a giant lumber mill in Canada that can operate with a problematic brute efficiency.”
The space is used for gatherings among the Foundation staff and the public. And the nearby K-8 school brings students here for outdoor classes.
“Given the present environmental situation, our office believes that we should be championing the beauty of modesty in gardens, modesty in material choices, but also in the scale of a project,” Godshall said.
For Jones, modesty means landscape architects need to design within their means. “We need to treat the Earth like a body. You don’t redesign a body to take care of it. Look at projects with a stewardship lens, rather than a ‘capital D’ design lens.”
Sara Zewde, ASLA, is founder of Studio Zewde, a design firm practicing landscape architecture, urbanism, and public art. She is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Over the past few years, you have led the reinterpretation of Frederick Law Olmsted as part of Olmsted 200. You just signed a contract for a new book on Olmsted and his journeys through the South, which he documented in The Cotton Kingdom. Your book is tentatively entitled Finding Olmsted and will be published by Simon & Schuster. Can you tell us about your interest in him?
To be honest with you, I did not pursue landscape architecture because of Olmsted, nor did I have a burning desire to work on Olmsted after learning about him. What happened was that I learned about Olmsted’s time in the South, writing about the conditions of slavery as a correspondent for The New York Times, in passing. I grew up in the South, and while I studied urban sociology, city planning, and landscape architecture, the South wasn’t very present in the curriculum formation. And yet, “the South got something to say,” to quote Andre 3000, if I may.
From there, I started to investigate Olmsted’s travels through the South, finding that he returned from his travels just prior to embarking on his career in landscape architecture. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there must be a connection between what he saw in the South and his conception of landscape architecture, so I tried to figure what that connection might be.
I would go on to learn that Olmsted’s travels south pulled many of his interests in land, political economy, and civic society together for him, propelling him towards a practice of landscape architecture. He returned from the South with a clarified conviction in the significance of public space in a postbellum society. He translated that conviction into a landscape design for Central Park together with Calvert Vaux, which consequently, would go onto influence the larger American public park project. There’s a chain of influence that stems from the South.
At the ASLA 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture, you guided landscape architects through the history of Seneca Village, the predominantly black community that was displaced by the New York City government to make way for Central Park. Then, you said “communities and their histories aren’t erased; they exist in plain sight, if you look.” How can landscape architects partner with communities to better show what exists but may be unseen?
I revisited the places Olmsted visited when he traveled to the South 165 years ago. Among the things that I found across these sites were the ways landscape architecture has been used to obscure the presence of slavery. So, in an ironic twist of fate, Olmsted’s profession has become the tool for untelling the stories about America that Olmsted wanted to tell in his writing. So it occurred to me: Can Olmsted’s landscape architecture also be the tool to tell those stories?
Seneca Village, in a sense, has not been erased. The landscape doesn’t lie. Remnants of people’s daily lives are still present in the park, and moreover their descendants walk among us. It’s up to us to acknowledge that. I believe landscape architecture can be a tool for heightening the presence of what is already there.
Your work seems largely focused on strengthening communities’ connection to their own histories, thereby empowering them and increasing their resilience to future challenges. Instead of taking a design-first approach, you take a community-first approach. In a video with PBS, you said your goal is to ensure your body of work, in totality, doesn’t say anything. Why take this approach?
There are so many cultures underrepresented in design pedagogy and practice. Part of the insistence on my part about not having a design signature so to speak is that our office really tap into the particular place, people, ecology, and cultural context. It helps us challenge some of the quiet constraints we’ve inherited about space and design.
There is a latent genius expressed in the spatial patterns of their daily lives. I find a lot of creative inspiration from people and place, and I challenge myself in my practice to tap into that more than anything else. It unravels creative approaches to designing landscapes that are unique, that support ecological systems, and are affirming for people.
This is important particularly for groups who have not been served by the design professions historically. It is of critical value to have your presence honored, and your way of life supported by the environment around you. Many of us live in a society that wasn’t designed for us to flourish in. What does it look like if it is?
In Philadelphia, you have been working with community groups and graffiti artists to protect Graffiti Pier from climate change. You purposefully framed your planning and design work with the community using that language. How did you overcome community fears that you would alter the character of a beloved community arts space? How is Graffiti Pier a model for other urban climate justice and adaptation work?
Graffiti Pier is feeling pressure from all sides. From the land, it’s coming from intense development pressure and land value appreciation. From the sea, it’s sea level rise and increasingly severe storm events. On the pier itself, the structure is decaying.
We communicated early with folks: “This project is your chance to save Graffiti Pier. If you do nothing, all of these pressures are going to collapse on this thing.”
We have been having one-on-one conversations with graffiti writers, or in small groups, and fielding anonymous emails, phone calls, and representatives, wanting to respect the fact that many graffiti writers and street artists have been criminalized for their use of the site.
In the Graffiti Pier context, there was an opportunity to introduce this intertidal landscape, remove the bulkheads, and allow the shift of the park upland as the tides continue to rise. That really offers the artists an opportunity, with new sea walls, to engage the rising tides while expanding available surfaces for art.
But that idea’s very specific to this context, and that’s the takeaway for me. I wouldn’t go into any situation and say “here’s how to do it.” I go into every situation working to tailor an approach that feels appropriate to its place.
For other communities facing managed retreat from climate impacts, we need to understand the specific conditions, complexities, and nuances of each place. Within those places, we need to learn what’s important and what’s not important and understand the ways in which a community already lives dynamically and adaptively and design for that.
In addition to your design work with Studio Zewde, you’re an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Design. There, you are the first-ever Black voting faculty member in landscape architecture. And as of 2020, you are one of 19 Black landscape architecture professors at accredited programs in the U.S. Since the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, how have you seen landscape architecture academia evolve? And what do you think still needs to happen?
Conversations about race and politics didn’t have as much room to breathe in the landscape architecture discipline before 2020. Students have become more politicized in their work, curricula have also evolved to some degree, the discourse around practice and engaging community is more present. But no meaningful change can happen in three years. This is a long struggle, and it didn’t start in 2020.
One of the ways I hope to see the profession grow is in our ability to work with policymakers and think about the impact of our work at various scales. Some of Olmsted’s work can be seen as an example of this. His book, The Cotton Kingdom, represents a model of seeing the landscape at many different scales, smaller and larger, politically and ecologically, and he often was an advocate for his projects.
Design is parallel to other major forms of change. Landscape architecture cannot be inward looking in this regard. We can’t design our way out of climate change or wealth inequity. It’s not just about design as an end, but it’s about design as a tool for change.
We need the language and tools to understand the relationship between power and what we do as landscape architects. We should really be thinking about ourselves in relationship to the outside world.
You grew up in Louisiana, the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants. Ethiopia has thousands of years of rich landscape architectural and architectural history. How do you think your New Orleans upbringing and Ethiopian heritage is reflected in your work?
I grew up in Slidell mostly. I lived in New Orleans as an adult. I saw life on my street and on my block. We closed down the block to have crawfish boils. I grew up seeing the parades, the festivals, the Second Lines. We had parks. We had yards. We had canals. We had levees. We had neutral grounds. That’s my understanding of landscape. This system of pieces of urban landscapes. I saw the ways in which these pieces can come together to form a theater for civic life and culture.
While I didn’t grow up in Ethiopia, my parents often would share stories about Ethiopia. I think absorbing the fact that Black people have thousands of years of history from those stories, coupled with the fact that I was living in a place so celebratory about its own Black culture, inspired a deep well of pride, a sense of self, in me as a kid.
I think there’s probably somewhat of a straight line from what my upbringing offered me in that regard and how I see the world and therefore practice landscape architecture today.
In midtown Manhattan, the street crossings surrounding the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel were once some of the most challenging in the city. A mess of highway ramps, missing sidewalks, and concrete barriers made the corner of Dyer Avenue and 30th Street an area to avoid.
Now with a new $50 million elevated connector, pedestrians can safely move 30 feet above the intersections, using a 600-foot-long L-shaped bridge from the High Line to Moynihan Train Hall.
“This new and vital pedestrian walk connects Midtown to the High Line and the West Side with a heightened sense of drama, spectacle, and delight,” said James Corner, FASLA, founder and CEO of JCFO.
The connector links the High Line — which starts on Ganesvoort Street in the Meatpacking District and ends at Hudson Yards and the Jacob Javitz Convention Center on 34th Street — with the $1.6 billion train hall that opened in 2021.
The new pedestrian passage can be expected to be used by tens or even hundreds of thousands of people a year. Pre-Covid, the High Line saw eight million visitors annually; and the train station has already welcomed 700,000 travelers.
Like all complex NYC projects, the connector came out of collaboration among a slew of public, private, and non-profit organizations — Empire State Development, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Brookfield Properties, and the Friends of the High Line.
This team states that the connector is part of a collective effort “to create safer, more enjoyable pedestrian access, connect people to transit, and seamlessly link public open spaces and other community assets in the neighborhood.”
And JCFO, which has designed the High Line since 2004, notes that the connector is just one of new access improvements for the elevated park. A street-level plaza at the edge of the park on 18th Street is in development, and additional spaces to integrate the High Line into the community could happen in the future.
Spanning 600 feet, the walkway is comprised of two segments — a 340-foot-long woodland bridge running east to west, and a 260-foot-long timber bridge going north to south.
The woodland bridge is an extension of the landscape of the High Line Spur, which veers east off the main route of the High Line for half a block at 30th Street. Connected soil beds built into the black steel structure support 60 trees, 90 shrubs, and 5,200 grasses and perennials.
“The trees [are] characteristic of an Eastern deciduous forest that will grow into a lush landscape for birds and pollinators, provide shade, and shield pedestrians from traffic below,” the team writes. Ninety percent of the landscape is comprised of native plants, selected to provide color year round and habitat.
The timber bridge rises above the stream of traffic coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel, using a truss structure to minimize its footprint on the ground.
Made of glulaminated Alaskan yellow cedar wood from British Columbia, Canada, the connector also advances more sustainable practices. The highly compressed wood layers sequester carbon, and construction of the beams released far less greenhouse emissions than a steel alternative.
“The selection of glulam was based on its numerous benefits: It is a sustainably-sourced building material that has a lower carbon footprint than concrete or steel, while still providing exceptional durability and strength. Additionally, it adds warmth and texture as a natural material, enhancing the pedestrian experience, and offering a modern take on New York’s historic warren truss railroad bridges and structures,” said Lisa Switkin, ASLA, senior principal at JCFO.
(Switkin explains that glulam has many potential uses for landscape architects. The same Alaskan yellow cedar glulam was also used in their Tongva Park in Santa Monica, California).
Where the two bridges meet, the team also created a small plaza that offers a “moment of pause” amid the cacophony of midtown. Instead of dodging traffic, one can sit and take in the vista.
“We’ve heard for years about how inhospitable these streets around the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel felt for people in the community. Now, the connector will give our neighbors a safe, green, and inspiring pathway,” said Alan van Capelle, executive director of the Friends of the High Line.
Park(ing) Day is Friday, September 15. The focus of this year’s Park(ing) Day, which is now in its 17th year, is pollinators.
Birds, bats, bees, butterflies, and other insects need our help more than ever. Use your Park(ing) Day space to educate the public. Show them how landscape architects create healthy places for an important pollinator in your community.
You can use your space to:
Provide educational materials about a pollinator in your community that is at risk
Show native plants the pollinator relies on
Create an interactive game or demonstration that teaches how to design habitat
Post images of your Park(ing) Day installation to your social (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). Use the hashtag #ParkingDay and tag us (@Nationalasla)
Make sure you have permission or signed release forms from anyone you photograph.
ASLA will highlight the best posts from students, firms, and chapters across our social platforms!
Ideas for How to Highlight Pollinators
In 2019, MKSK partnered with the Washington, D.C. Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and the US National Arboretum for Park(ing) Day. The team transformed two parking spots in downtown Washington, D.C. into a native “Pollinator Gallery” that educated the public about the importance of pollinators and the role landscape architects play in protecting them.
Landscape architects showed the world from a bee’s perspective. “We show how color perception, habitat requirements, and food source change throughout the seasons and are vital to understanding how to create functional ecosystems in designed landscapes,” MKSK explains.
Their Park(ing) Day installation included a meadow of potted native perennials and grasses, and a field of pinwheels, ranging from violet to yellow. “They were painted to represent patterns of ultra-violet light that bees see on flower petals.” The pinwheels were also “fixed at varying heights to indicate the yearly summer peak of insect biomass and its overall decline in recent decades.”
Two bee box brackets “mimic the nesting tunnels created in the ground by solitary, native bees.” The brackets also became an “unexpected, impromptu photo booth for enthusiastic Park(ing) Day visitors.”
The institution of slavery shaped landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And in turn enslaved and free Africans and their descendants created new landscapes in the United States, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. African people had their own intimate relationships with the land, which enabled them to carve out their own agency and culture.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves brought from Sub-Saharan Africa were central to the production of many U.S. and Caribbean commodities, including cotton, tobacco, rice, rum, and sugar, and the industrialization and financial markets that resulted from them. The success of the Domino Sugar Company and its refinery on the waterfront of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was a direct result of enslaved labor. As such, “Brooklyn is a part of the Black Atlantic,” said Emily Holloway, a PhD student at Clark University. “Slavery in the south and Caribbean underwrote industrialization in the North.”
Holloway uses multiple academic disciplines to disentangle the “messy reality of racial capitalism,” which runs from Africa to Haiti, Cuba to the Northeast. This economic system relied on slaves and the accumulation of capital, which took the form of buildings and infrastructure.
The success of the Domino Sugar Company can also be understood as a result of a slave rebellion, which drove major changes in the sugar cane economy of the Caribbean. “The beginnings of the Domino Sugar Company leads back to the Haitian revolution,” Holloway said.
Self-liberated Haitians rose up and defeated the French colonial army, which caused sugar plantation owners on the island to flee to eastern Cuba. There, they clear-cut the land and reinstalled their slave-based sugar cane economy. This sugar was then sent to New York City for processing as the granular table sugar consumers bought in stores.
William Havemeyer, the founder of a company that later grew into Domino Sugar Company and later Domino Foods, Inc., formed a sugar refinery in lower Manhattan in 1807. Fifty years later, his firm moved to Williamsburg, where they built a larger refinery.
After that burnt down, the company built a colossal building in 1883 that could produce a million pounds of sugar a day. The company took up four city blocks and created a “densely populated industrial ecosystem.” Today, the building is being redeveloped as an office building, and the Domino waterfront has become “gentrified” and transformed into a park.
This industrialization process was mirrored in the sugar cane plantation landscapes of Cuba. Small farms multiplied and grew in size. Enslaved and then free laborers were still needed to harvest the cane but the processing at the farms became increasingly mechanized. “This history has been largely erased in the archives,” Holloway said, and a “more creative approach to research is needed.”
Justin Dunnavant, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, approaches the history of the Caribbean through multiple academic lenses as well.
He said there are researchers exploring the ideas of Black ecology, which examines the unique ways Black people interact with nature and how they are also erased from the environment. And there are also researchers focused on historical ecology, looking at how relationships between societies and environments have changed over time.
His goal is to synthesize these approaches into the new study of Black historical ecology, which can explore how ecological relations changed because of the slave trade. This will involve weaving together multiple narratives to examine the plantation system’s impact on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. His hope is it can result in “a call to action to redress.”
Dunnavant has focused on the island of St. Croix, which was part of the Danish West Indies and is now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. As part of an archeological research collective, he and his team are investigating the ecological impacts of slavery and plantations, including the deforestation that occurred to clear lands for sugar cane; the soils that were degraded by agriculture and development; and the coral mined for buildings. His work is also a part of the Estate Little Princess Maritime and Terrestrial Archaeology Field School, which trains Crucian high-school students in archaeology while investigating the remnants of Danish slavery.
At the same time, he is also uncovering the little known legacy of the maroons that claimed isolated areas of the island. Maroons were Black slaves who freed themselves by escaping, and some were their descendants. They formed self-sufficient communities throughout the Caribbean and southern United States. They often mixed with Indigenous peoples, forming new creole communities. In St. Croix, they led a slave rebellion that ended slavery in 1848.
The part of the island where the maroons found sanctuary was “unmapped” in Danish historical records, but it was actually a “rich area of Black freedom.” Using Lidar data and other archeological tools, Dunnavant’s team is uncovering the remnants of what he calls a “Black geography.” He is interested in how the maroons terraced the land for agriculture and created fortifications and leveraged the dense landscape to protect themselves. “Uncovering their stories is a form of redress.”
Matthew Francis Rarey, a professor at Oberlin College, then took the audience to Brazil to focus on the Portuguese colonial empire and its deadly campaign against maroons.
Approximately 80 fugitive slaves had made a home at Buraco do Tatu, on the coast of Bahia in Northeast Brazil. Their quilombo, or fugitive community, was destroyed by colonial forces. And that destruction was documented in a unique map that accompanied a letter to the viceroy.
The map was meant to provide evidence of the colonial power’s success in suppressing maroons, but it has become an “icon of scholarship,” as it is one of the few comprehensive aerial perspectives on how maroons organized themselves.
The map depicts a community nestled in sand dunes and blended into surrounding trees and shrubs. At its outer perimeter are fields of surrounding wood spikes. There are spiked trap holes. And there’s also a single path to the sea. The inner sanctum, the community itself, is organized on a grid, with homes arranged by streets. And there are food gardens and a trellis for growing passion fruit. “It shows a rebellion landscape,” Rarey said.
The maroons would use the path to reach roads where they would rob wayfarers. “They were fighting against inequality and capitalism.” The maroons would also target enslaved Black people going to market in an attempt to strike a blow at the plantation economy. “Their goal was to dismantle plantations from the inside” by “weaponizing blackness” and making plantation owners “look foolish,” Rarey said. They also participated in informal exchanges to build their supply of guns and gunpowder.
The map includes a legend that explains how the maroon community were killed in the onslaught by Portuguese colonial forces. One maroon woman was labeled a sorceress and “defamed after her death.” Many others killed themselves instead of risking re-enslavement. In the map, the corpses become “part of the subjugated landscape.”
The Portuguese process of mapping the community is an attempt to reinstate colonial order on a free Black landscape. Rarey said you can sense the “anxiety of the cartographer” as they had “no reference point.”
The institution of slavery shaped landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And in turn enslaved and free Africans and their descendants created new landscapes in the United States, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. African people had their own intimate relationships with the land, which enabled them to carve out their own agency and culture.
Thaisa Way, FASLA, director of the garden and landscape studies department at Dumbarton Oaks, said the symposium was the fourth in a series meant to “curate a people’s history of landscape.”
African slaves in the United States’ Southern states and the Caribbean were forced to work in their owners’ plantations. They were seen as cogs in an industrial farming system driven by a trans-Atlantic capitalist market economy. But many owners also set aside land slaves could use to grow, trade, and sell food. “This was advantageous for the slave owner,” said C.C. McKee, a professor at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Copenhagen, as it meant having to spend less on feeding them.
McKee is intrigued by a painting by the artist simply known as Le Masurier, created in the French colony of Martinique in the 1770s (see image above). It clearly shows slave children eating sugar cane, the result of the plantation monoculture, but also the “Afro-Caribbean ecologies,” the many African and native trees and plants slaves planted at the edges of plantations, including cashew and tamarind, pea, and starfruit.
According to historical accounts of plantation life during that time, slaves also planted potatoes, yams, cabbages, herbs, and melons. They blended native Caribbean and African plants, taking a “creolized approach to food production.”
The edges of plantations were places where African social structures could be asserted. In these remnant spaces, slaves could decide how to parcel and cultivate the land. And while slave ownership of these areas was impossible, in some communities, hereditary claims were made on parcels, and kinship structures could play a role. In some communities, they functioned as a slave commons. They were “sites of resistance” to the slave owner’s world.
What isn’t seen in the painting McKee highlights is a depiction of the important role indigenous Caribbean peoples played in cultivating trees and plants, and on many islands, their role in teaching Africans how to harvest and prepare food from them. “The indigenous people have been ghosted because they were completely expelled by the 18th century. They were exterminated and exported; it was genocide.”
Slave children also had a complex relationship with the landscapes of the American South, explained Mikayla Janee Harden, a PhD student at the University of Delaware. They were put at greater risk by a dangerous landscape but also “knowingly imprinted on that landscape,” she said.
Children were left on their own or in the care of an elder while their parents worked the fields. Depending on their age, many were also tasked with clean-up and other responsibilities.
On plantations, slaves lived near untamed landscapes. Children who worked and played in these places without shoes were at great risk from snake bites. The few references to slave children in historical records relate to the medical knowledge gleaned from these bites. Children’s lack of “experience, wisdom, and judgement increased their risk of environmental harm.”
But children could also benefit from their “tacit knowledge” of the landscape. While still enslaved, some apprenticed at a young age to learn important trades. Harden highlights the example of Edmond Albius. Enslaved as a child on the French island colony of Reunion, he discovered a highly efficient way to cultivate vanilla that is still used today.
Landscape was a source of “pain and pleasure” for enslaved children. Untended by their working parents, they could be bitten by snakes or have accidents but could also learn, play, and imagine. Harden is next exploring the material culture — the corn-husk dolls and games enslaved children created — and how these objects transmitted African folklore and culture to the next generation.
The conversation then shifted to the other side of the Atlantic. The landscapes of the Falémé Valley in western Sub-Saharan Africa are a source of deep interest for Jacques Aymeric-Nsangou, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The valley provides insights into how African people avoided the process of enslavement and commodification.
Aymeric-Nsangou decided to research the hinterlands because most Africans captured and enslaved came from the interior, not the coasts. “Many had never seen the ocean before” when they were loaded into slave ships at coastal ports.
The Falémé River spans approximately 250 miles and flows south to north — from northern Guinea, through Mali and Senegal. It flows through mountains, forests, and deserts, and experiences dramatic seasonal changes. It is a tributary of the Senegal River, which flows east to west, so it could be used by slavers to carry captured people to ports on the western coast.
The landscape of the valley included both independent kingdoms and villages of the varied Madinka (otherwise known as the Manlinke or Mandingo) people, who are of similar ethnic origins. They were targeted by the Muslim Fulani (or Fulu) kingdom for capture as part of jihad (holy war). Enslavement had a long history in this part of the world. For centuries, captives were taken as a product of war. People could also be enslaved if, after a trial, they were deemed criminal or for other reasons.
Aymeric-Nsangou explored the few remnants of Tatas, the fortified defensive homes and landscapes of the region, with a team of archeologists. “The Tatas didn’t appear before the 18th century; they increased because of the slave trade,” Aymeric-Nsangou said.
There are no remaining, intact Tatas in the region, because the French colonial government largely destroyed them. But historic photographs show they were made with raw mud cement and stone.
The interiors of the Tatas were labyrinthine and had multiple layers of walls. Noble families occupied the innermost Tata, which also had the strongest walls. Outside, wood palisades, which are still seen in many communities today, provided an extra layer of security against slavers. And these communities also sometimes “weaponized African bees.” These insects are famously aggressive. And “there are stories that villagers could command them to attack.”
While the Tatas could offer defense, they could also be a trap. Another strategy villagers in the region took was to keep their community small so they could quickly relocate.