Interview with Hitesh Mehta: Sustainability Is Impossible Without Spirituality

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA / HM Design

Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, is president of HM Design, which has completed planning, architecture, and landscape architecture projects in more than 60 countries. He is an international expert in sustainable tourism, including wildlife conservancy planning and eco-lodge development. Mehta is also the author of Authentic Ecolodges (Harper Design).

Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

In more than 60 countries, you have worked on some of the finest sustainable tourism planning and eco-lodge projects in the world, including the Crosswaters Ecolodge in China, which won two ASLA professional awards. National Geographic has called you a pioneer of sustainable tourism. What are the top three lessons you have learned from your many projects working with local and indigenous communities?

Lesson number one: Never judge people from the way they look. Indigenous people have lived on their land for thousands of years. Through storytelling and personal experiences that have been passed over generations, they have built knowledge and wisdom crucial to every project.

Lesson number two: Empower local people from day one, especially women, and children. At home, women make a lot of the decisions and youth are the future. Bringing them into a project on day one helps ensure a sustainable project. You want to give them ownership. It’s a ground-up approach rather than top-down.

Lesson number three: No matter how much of an international expert you are, no matter how much research you have done, and how much knowledge you have acquired, always go into every project without an ego. Go with good listening skills first. Once you’ve heard local peoples aspirations, needs, etc., gathered on-site information, walked the site with the locals, and have conducted a metaphysical site analysis, slowly share what you can bring to the table, making sure you let them know what they bring to the table is equally important.

Indigenous communities are in the front lines in the fight against climate change. How do you empower them in their fight to protect endangered ecosystems and their own livelihoods? Are there any projects that serve as models?

Indigenous communities, especially in the less developing world, are greatly affected by climate change. A lot of these communities live in the tropics. Especially in Africa, drought and the lack of drinking water are big issues. This in turn, causes food security problems. In Kenya, where I am still a citizen, the Maasai look at their cattle as their economic lifeline. That’s what keeps them going. If there is drought, there is no grass. There’s nothing to feed the cattle, and it can become a serious issue, because this is their security.

A project that serves as an exemplary model is one in which I led a team of local Kenyan consultants and where we worked together with the clients — the Koiyaki Maasai community — to help create an ecotourism and conservation destination called Naboisho Wildlife Conservancy. Previous to our intervention, the community had subdivided their 50,000-acre land into 50-acre parcels owned by 500 families. But every family had their cattle and goats, which caused the land to be overgrazed. Lack of grass and presence of cattle kept all the wild animals away.

The Maasai decided to consolidate all their land and brought in private lodge operators — eco-tourism companies — as a way to generate income for them. The Maasai all moved to neighboring lands they also owned. The private partners contracted us as protected area ecotourism planners, and, together with the Maasai, tourism and conservation stakeholders, we created an integrated sustainable tourism, biodiversity, and grazing master plan for the conservancy.

Planning with the Koiyaki Maasai community / HM Design

With five small twelve-room tents and lodges, money started flowing directly into every Maasai’s home at the end of each month via their mobile cell-phones. They no longer had to rely solely on cattle for their livelihood. Wild animals started coming back, because cattle mainly grazed in neighboring areas. And the tourists are paying big bucks to have quality guided safari experiences. Creating a wildlife conservancy was a win/win for everyone: the tourists, the private partners, flora and fauna and of course the Maasai and their cattle. During droughts, cattle are only allowed into the conservancy in certain controlled areas. The conservancy fees provide the Maasai community with a sustainable livelihood and ensure the conservation of the wildlife in this vital corridor of the Maasai Mara ecosystem.

As populations grow around the world, but also in sub-Saharan Africa, human and wildlife conflicts are becoming more prevalent. How can we protect endangered species while also ensuring people’s livelihoods? Are there models that show the way?

There are many models, particularly in Africa, and it has become mainstream to go in this direction. A project that I worked on many years ago that is still a good case study is the Virunga Massif Trans-Boundary protected area. Virunga Massif straddles and borders of three East and Central African countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Each country has a national park along their respective borders. This region protects the only remaining populations in the world of mountain gorillas. The parks are bordered by dense populations of local peoples, and there are human-wildlife conflicts with gorillas going out into the fields. We prepared an integrated sustainable tourism and biodiversity master plan for the whole region. When we began the master plan in 2005, there were only 600 mountain gorillas, and the latest count is 1,004!

Virunga Massif integrated master plan / HM Design

Apart from conserving important habitat, the master plan also proposed several eco-lodges at the edge of the parks. All of them have now been built and are financially successful. The demand to see the mountain gorillas is so high that eco-tourists are paying $1,500 for one hour to be with these great apes. There’s a one-year waiting list!

What’s great is that some money is channeled straight to local communities, which now see the importance of maintaining the gorillas’ habitat. The communities no longer take firewood from the forest because they earn a living from gorilla tourism and the eco-lodges bring in a lot of money from guests, with part of the profits used to benefit these communities.

A heart-warming part of the master plan just got realized five months ago on the Uganda side of the Virunga Massif in Mgahinga National Park. The Batwa, indigenous peoples, who used to live in the forest but had been chased out when the National Park was created in 1991, have now been re-located to a new village at the edge of the park and act as guides, taking visitors into the forest in the National Park, and showing them about their lives and connections with the forest. An eco-lodge where I had provided site planning consultancy, funded the Batwa village and Visitor Center, so the Batwa community could share their culture and live closer to the forest instead of the nearby urban town of Kisoro.

You have said we cannot have true sustainability without incorporating the spiritual. This belief is central to your metaphysical or sixth-sense approach to planning and designing projects, which you have also trained other planners and designers to apply. What is the core idea you want people to understand?

For the longest time, pragmatic environmentalists have been talking about the triple bottom line of sustainability — environmental, economic, and social. But in my work, I have found that without respecting the fourth element — spiritual — one cannot have sustainability. What do I mean by spiritual? Spirituality is the energy embodied in any place. The metaphysics of a place. The intangible aspects that cannot be measured by modern science. We need to respect this embodied energy to create a sense of place. The sacred space.

Feng Shui is a well-used example of the spiritual aspects of sustainability — the yin and the yang, the chi, and how to use that energy to create an amazing experience in which you have a spiritual connection with the site. Similarly, for over 8,000 years, the Indians have been applying principles of design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry called Vastu Shastra, which is even older than Feng Shui. Vastu Shastra is the ancient Indian science of harmony and prosperous living by eliminating negative energies and enhancing positive energies.

Native Americans also have a strong spiritual connection with their lands. When they take you on a walk of their country, they will point at a hill and say “this is our sacred hill” and when you look around, there are probably several others that look the same. So why is that hill sacred and not the others? It’s because there is a sacred energy embodied in that particular hill. My job as a landscape architect is to work with indigenous communities, so they can identify all those areas sacred to them. And then protect them.

If the clients do not believe in these traditional ways of looking at the land, I propose the use of each one of our six senses to immerse into the site to understand the energy. Connect deeply to the land through the ears, mouth, eyes, nose, fingers, but most importantly through the sixth sense: when you become a part of the site and feel its energy. That is the crucial element of trying to create a project that’s sustainable, but also which creates a beautiful sense of place.

Metaphysical analysis of a place through touch / HM Design
Metaphysical analysis of a place through sound / HM Design

As part of your work of Landscape Architects Without Borders, you have provided pro-bono planning and design services to aboriginal tribes in Australia and other communities. How do you enable them to incorporate their landscape spirituality into a contemporary place designed for themselves but also tourists?

We worked with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia. They were the first aboriginal tribe that managed to get their land back from the white government in an area so close to a major city; Brisbane in this case. The land they got back was part of an island and has the second most popular camping sites in Australia.

However, the aboriginal peoples do not have camping site management experience, so we came in to help them build an ecotourism experience that would help them share their culture with guests and help make more money than before. We designed and built two glamping eco-shacks as examples of what they can achieve with enhanced camping experiences.

In the gardens, we proposed for the planting of bush tucker plants. The aboriginal peoples, who live in the outback have these special plants they eat called bush tucker. With their knowledge and wisdom, we created a beautiful indigenous garden that included both bush tucker and medicinal plants.

Planning landscape with the Quandamooka peoples of Queensland in Australia / HM Design

You are a proponent of ego-less design, which is characterized by a deep respect for the environment and all of its inhabitants, existing cultures, and vernacular styles. Can you explain how you came across this design philosophy? What about your upbringing, your religious heritage, shaped that?

My childhood has heavily influenced the work I do in landscape architecture. My upbringing is in the philosophy of Jainism, which is one of the four main philosophies that came out of India. It’s by far the least known, because Jains don’t believe in preaching.

One of the main tenets of this philosophy is a Sanskrit concept called Ahimsa, which means non-violence to fellow beings, and non-violence to all other beings as well. In my family, we’ve been vegetarians for at least 3,000 years. The respect is so deep for other beings that Jain monks in India sweep the floor before they walk so they do not step on and kill any ants.

In true Jainism, they believe plants have feelings. In fact, modern science is confirming this, but my ancestors have believed this since 1,000 BC. True Jains don’t eat anything that grows below the ground — no potatoes or carrots — because every time you pick that plant, it’s dead. So you only pick a vegetable or fruit from a tree that continues living after you picked what you want. That is deep respect, even to plants. It’s all about low-impact living. This is the conservation ethic I practice in my work.

My projects are low-impact designs that respect everything. I practice a non-homocentric approach to planning, where everything is equal. You can call it vegan or ahimsa design and planning. I design non-violent spaces. For example, I identify all native species and make sure none of them are cut. And in all our projects, we only specify native plants.

And, personally, I have been practicing a vegan lifestyle for 13 years.

Lastly, you have called yourself a “holistic, contextual designer.” How do you think this is different from being a planner or landscape architect?

For me, there’s a big difference between holistic and contextual design. Holistic is when in my projects I look at animals and plants as my clients, too. So, when human clients come to me, I tell them: I see you as half of my clients, but the other half are the animals and plants. And when I perform a beautiful marriage of the two, we will have a holistic yet sustainable project.

Local communities are an important part of the holistic process. I involve them from the beginning. Local consultants also bring in amazing knowledge and wisdom. So, I consider the local consultants and communities, fauna, flora, and, of course, the clients’ financial needs, because a project has to be profitable for it to function. That is the holistic side.

I also look at myself as a contextual designer. I like to create projects in context with their cultural and physical environments. For me, placing in a glass, aluminum, and concrete building in the middle of a remote area with rich cultural architectural heritage is not contextual. My office carries out research both off-site and on-site in order to discover the local vernacular styles before starting on any project. We use a landscape design approach called the “continuity of the vernacular.”

Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design
Kwanari Eco-lodge, Dominica / HM Design

Nancy Somerville: Landscape Architects Play Crucial Role in Fight Against Climate Change

Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA CEO and Executive VP at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia / EPNAC

This speech was given by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, ASLA CEO and Executive Vice President, at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Sunday, October 21.

Every year at this meeting I’m reminded of the incredible variety of ways landscape architects serve their communities. The diverse talents and skills of this profession came home to me recently when I was visiting CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco. They are addressing issues of social equity as part of the revitalization of public parks. They are designing a resilient solution to a three-mile stretch of coastline infrastructure vulnerable to earthquakes and sea level rise. And one of their staff is pioneering a method for calculating the carbon footprint of landscape architecture projects.

Seawall Resiliency Project, Port of San Francisco / CMG Landscape Architecture

The landscape architects at CMG, all of you, and your colleagues across the country have much to offer a world that, more than ever, needs responsible stewards of the built and natural environments. For those of us on staff at ASLA, it is a privilege to be an advocate for what you do.

Before I get started, you may have noticed that ASLA has a fresh, new graphic identity. We think it not only works well in all contemporary media, it better reflects the energy and forward-thinking nature of the Society and its members, while remaining connected to our heritage and our values. Importantly, it will also help unify and strengthen the identity of the Society at the national and chapter levels.

Of course our identity doesn’t just come from our graphics. It comes from what we do and who we are.

I’m happy to announce that the Board has added inclusion and diversity to our statement of corporate values and culture.

This comes as we have convened our sixth successful diversity summit.

The summits, and our work throughout the year, reflect our unwavering commitment to increasing diversity in the Society and within the profession, and to build future leaders who truly reflect the communities we serve.

In addition to diversity, our other top priorities are advocacy and public awareness.

On the federal level, we maintained our strong advocacy efforts to protect important federal programs and policies, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Although the LWCF expired on September 30, it is still funded through December 7, 2018, and a bill to permanently reauthorize this critical program was approved in both the House of Representatives and Senate committees.

Thanks to your advocacy, multiple amendments that would have derailed this legislation were defeated by wide margins, allowing the bill to move forward. Unfortunately, the fight is not over. Both the full House of Representatives and the Senate now must pass a final bill before December 7. Please continue to contact your legislators to support LWCF.

Also under active consideration in Congress—and getting closer to final passage—are bills to address the maintenance backlog in the national parks and continue the Every Kid in a Park program. Our Government Affairs team worked with coalition partners and allied organizations to move these critical bills through Congress. Your continued support and participation in our iAdvocate Network has been critical—and will continue to be critical—every step of the way.

On the state side, this year we again saw record numbers of challenges to licensure. Some specifically targeted landscape architects along with other professions and occupations. Some were more indirect threats—including broad licensure reform legislation and executive orders for licensure review.

Our chapters are hard at work countering the attacks—and working pro-actively to educate their legislators about the work of the profession and its impact on public health, safety, and welfare. This year we expanded our annual state Advocacy Summit. In a partnership with the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, our member advocates were joined by their counterparts from the state licensing boards. The joint summit has already resulted in stronger communications and partnerships in many states—all of which will enhance our licensure defense efforts in the coming years.

On the priority of public awareness, we have continued our successful programs, like World Landscape Architecture Month, and our PARKing Day activities, and have also taken on new initiatives. Our signature “This is Landscape Architecture” campaign continues to be extremely popular—and very successful at increasing our visibility and enhancing public understanding of the profession. This campaign will continue again next April during World Landscape Architecture Month—with an added focus on involving more of the global landscape architecture community.

This is Landscape Architecture campaign / ASLA, image from ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park. Office of Jim Burnett. Gary Zonkovic Photography

Just started this year is a multiyear communications initiative in collaboration with our partners in what we call the Presidents Council—ASLA, the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards, the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board, and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture. We have engaged the FrameWorks Institute to help develop a comprehensive communications strategy for communicating about the profession—and its value. What makes FrameWorks so interesting, and why we selected them for this project, is that they focus on how underlying cultural values shape attitudes—and use that as a frame for identifying communication messages and strategies that resonate with those deep-seated values.

In the first phase of the work, FrameWorks is mapping the gaps between the public understanding of landscape architecture and how those within the profession think and talk about it. Early next year, FrameWorks will report back on the gaps and deliver preliminary recommendations on how to bridge them. In the next phase, they will develop and test specific messages and strategies for effectively communicating the value of the profession.

Getting the public to really understand—and appreciate—the profession of landscape architecture has been a longtime goal. And while we have seen a significant increase in media coverage over the last 10 years, we have a long way to go. Developing a better understanding of the profession will support not only our public awareness goals, but also our government affairs advocacy, and our efforts to build a more diverse pipeline of future professionals.

Landscape architects, of course, operate at the nexus of the built and natural environments, which means that by definition this profession has a crucial role to play in addressing the issues of climate change, sustainability, and resilience.

This summer we released Smart Policies for a Changing Climate, the report and recommendations of the ASLA Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience. The report identifies the most important design and planning approaches for creating healthy, climate-smart, and resilient communities. And it makes specific public policy recommendations to support those approaches. The recommendations are informing our professional development programming and our advocacy and communications priorities. We are promoting the recommendations directly with public policy makers, as well as through our coalition networks and partnerships.

Smart Policies for a Changing Climate / ASLA

Last month I was honored to represent ASLA as a delegate at the Global Climate Action Summit. The conversations there were both deeply alarming and very encouraging. But I came away with one very clear takeaway for ASLA and the profession. While there are many voices and many experts leading the charge on reducing carbon emissions, there are fewer voices and even fewer experts who understand what needs to be done to help communities adapt to the changing climate.

This profession has unique knowledge and a profound responsibility to help address the issues of climate adaptation and community resilience. That’s why we’ve enhanced and reorganized our online resources devoted to sustainability, resilience, and climate change, making this vast knowledge base even more accessible to our members and the public.

How important is all of this? Two weeks ago the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a startling new report outlining the catastrophic consequences if the global community fails to take significant action in the next 10 years. The U. N. report reinforces the need for all those responsible for shaping human environments to redouble their efforts to mitigate climate effects and to ensure the resilience of communities already seeing the effects of the changing climate.

This commitment to action is why ASLA has also signed on to the We Are Still In initiative. This coalition of over 3,500 organizations from all sectors of society is a way of publicly standing by the Paris Climate Agreement and its goals of reducing emissions and fostering resilience.

Finally, I want to talk about a very special project ASLA is undertaking in Washington, D.C.

With urban infrastructure in crisis, ASLA believes it’s time for new thinking on how the civic realm can better serve public needs and meet environmental goals. What better place to put those ideas into action than the street on which ASLA’s headquarters sits in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.? The Chinatown Green Street project will renew the entire block using a blend of green, complete, and smart street strategies—a “test kitchen” of innovative concepts. It will serve as a national case study for design professionals, municipal officials, policymakers, advocates, and the public.

ASLA Chinatown Green Street / Design Workshop

Unlike many organizations, ASLA is willing to make its principles more than just ideas on paper. We make them tangible and visible. With landscape architects at the forefront, ASLA first demonstrated its commitment to a sustainable future with a pioneering Green Roof on its headquarters building. Then, we transformed the building itself into the Center for Landscape Architecture following the highest standards of sustainable design and occupant wellness. Now, we are taking our principles directly to the street and the city.

Please visit the Chinatown Green Street page to learn more about the project and how you can support it.

Landscape Architects: Now Is the Time for Climate Action

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Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad, ASLA, CMG Landscape Architecture

Earlier this month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a bombshell report concluding that the world has as little as twelve years to act to stave off the worst impacts from a warming climate.

Despite the weight of that assessment, a panel on climate action and landscape architecture at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia gave reasons to be hopeful and presented new tools that may help landscape architects reduce their climate impact.

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, a senior associate at CMG Landscape Architecture. “We believe our profession can be part of the solution, and that it’s time to work together.”

ASLA past-president Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, enumerated the many climate-focused initiatives ASLA has undertaken in recent years, including the ASLA Center Green Roof, the Chinatown Green Street, advocacy efforts, online resource guides, collaboration with federal agencies to develop resources and toolkits, and the recently convened Blue Ribbon Panel on Climate Change and Resilience and its report: Smart Policies for a Changing Climate. 

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ASLA Chinatown Green Street / ASLA, Design Workshop

Rinner stressed the need for landscape architects to become more involved with discussions around public policy. “We all have to advocate–that’s the first step,” she said. “If we can’t change policies, so many things will just continue as is.”

Collen Mercer Clarke, chair of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) committee on climate adaptation, gave an overview of CSLA’s efforts, which include the creation of a series of primers on climate adaptation and the promulgation of design standards that were written taking climate change into account.

Clarke urged the audience to think globally. “The world is waiting. I haven’t seen another profession that can provide the kind of leadership we can on this issue.”

Martha Schwartz, FASLA, CEO of Martha Schwartz Partners, highlighted recent work by the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) in the spirit of the organization’s 1966 Declaration of Concern. In 2016, fifty years after that initial declaration, the LAF convened to draft the New Landscape Declaration, which places climate change at the center of the profession’s focus for the 21st century.

“After centuries of mistakenly believing we could exploit nature without consequence, we have now entered an age of extreme climate change marked by rising seas, resource depletion, desertification, and unprecedented rates of species extinction,” the statement reads.

“The urgent challenge before us is to redesign our communities in the context of their bio-regional landscapes enabling them to adapt to climate change and mitigate its root causes.”

Earlier this month, LAF released a ten-point plan for landscape architects to act on this declaration. Action items include: designing with nature, setting measurable goals for climate-performance metrics, leading by example, developing interdisciplinary partnerships, serving in community organizations, and voting.

“We’ve got to be tougher and better at doing this,” Schwartz said. “It’s not enough to be a good designer, but an active designer, to take leadership in the era of climate change and stay relevant in an ever changing world.”

LAF is also supporting leadership on climate change through its fellowship program, which began in 2017 and provides funding for active professionals to pursue innovative research ideas. As an LAF Fellow, Pamela Conrad has developed a calculator that predicts the emissions and carbon sequestration potential

“A few years back, I assumed I could go online and download a tool that would tell me exactly what I wanted to know. But frankly, those tools really only exist for architects right now. Because we have the ability to sequester carbon, perhaps we need our own tools to measure these impacts.”

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Landscape Carbon Calculator / Pamela Conrad, CMG Landscape Architecture

Conrad’s tool, which is still in beta testing and has not yet been publicly released, measures sources of embodied emissions in landscape materials against the sequestration potential of vegetation on a site to calculate both the carbon footprint of a project and the amount of time it will take for sequestration to completely offset emissions. Past that point, the project will  sequester additional atmospheric carbon dioxide, a condition Conrad calls being “climate positive.”

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Climate Positive Design / Pamela Conrad, CMG Landscape Architecture

Using the calculator, Conrad has been able to estimate the carbon footprints of her recently completed projects and, by tweaking the input parameters, model strategies that could have reduced their climate impacts.

“We can plant more trees and woody shrubs; we can minimize paving, especially concrete; we can minimize lawn areas; we can use local or natural recycled materials.” With these strategies, Conrad estimates that she could have cut the time it will take for her projects to become carbon neutral in half.

“The design of those projects didn’t change at all, or the quality for that matter. But what a difference it could have made if we just had the resources to inform our design decisions.”

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Carbon Positive Design / CMG Landscape Architecture

Conrad argued that, through climate sensitive design, landscape architects could be responsible for the sequestration of as much as 0.24 gigatons of carbon over the next thirty years, enough to place landscape architecture in the list of 80 solutions to climate change studied in Paul Hawken’s Drawdown project.

And “if we were to include other work we do, like incorporating green roofs into projects or making cities more walkable and bikeable, that would put landscape architecture within the top 40 solutions.”

Conrad plans to release the calculator to the public next year and hopes that it will be used to set measurable goals for designing climate-friendly projects and create opportunities for accountability.

“How are we going to keep tabs on ourselves to make sure that we’re actually doing these things?” she asked her fellow panelists. “What would it take for us to have a 2030 challenge specific to landscape architecture?”

“ASLA or the LAF should do that — there’s no reason why we can’t!” said Schwartz.

“We all have to stand up for what this profession is founded on,” Schwartz said. “This is the foundation of who we are. This century is the golden age of landscape architecture. The world really needs you. It needs what you know and what you believe in. Now is the time.”

Beyond Mow and Blow: New Approaches to Park Maintenance

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Prairie Burn in Manhattan, Kansas / USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

“How can we make maintenance sexier and more fun?”

This was the question moderator Joey Hays, ASLA, posed to the crowd at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, in a session entitled “the disturbing pleasures of maintenance: audacious strategies for public parks,” which sought to address the increasingly-fraught issue of public parks maintenance and inspire creative, aesthetic, and ecological approaches to what can often seem a decidedly-mundane topic.

Tim Marshall, FASLA, was quick to respond to Hayes’ question. “Sexy and fun–those are not two things I’ve ever heard in the same sentence regarding maintenance,” he said to knowing laughs.

Maintenance may not be something that excites designers, clients, or the public, but its implementation–or lack thereof–can make all the difference in the success or failure of a project.

Marshall, who formerly served as deputy administrator and senior vice president of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City, said maintenance has become more problematic on a national level. Many parks and recreation departments have expanded their portfolios of amenities and facilities in recent decades, but operations funding has not kept up.

“We have more things to maintain, and at the same time, resources are going down.”

Recent trends in ecological design have not made things easier. Designs that rely heavily on meadows and other designed plant communities require specialized knowledge to maintain, knowledge often not held by maintenance crews accustomed to the “mow and blow” approach.

“Put in a lawn, you know exactly what to do right away,” he said. “A meadow changes year to year. It’s not a project, it’s a process.”

Sheep were at one time used to maintain the meadow in Central Park / Library of Congress

One of the biggest obstacles facing parks departments is what Marshall called the “silver tsunami,” the looming wave of retiring experienced staff who will take with them institutional knowledge, relationships, and experience.

Loss of funding and staff can lead to deferred maintenance, which inflates capital costs and depresses park use.

According to Marshall, public-private partnerships like the Central Park Conservancy have been key to filling the operational gaps left by budget cuts and staffing shortages. However, those partnerships come with their own challenges.

“There has to be an understanding that we’re in this together,” he said, adding “it probably took ten years before the Central Park Conservancy was firing on four of its six cylinders.”

Tim Netsch of the Metro Nashville Parks Planning Division has experienced these dynamics first hand. “There’s so much happening in Nashville that parallels some those national trends. There is something unsustainable about our current park system.”

Nashville has seen explosive growth in recent decades, which has extended the city’s park system. Since the adoption of the city’s first parks and greenways master plan in 2002, the park system has added approximately 6,500 acres.

“Our park system grew more in this 15 year period than it had in the previous 50 years,” Netsch said. “During that same period of capital budget abundance, our operating budget has stagnated,” leading to fewer maintenance employees per acre and reduced operating hours.

“Our park system has grown, but our organization has not.”

To break out of this cycle, Nashville asked Charlottesville-based Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) to incorporate maintenance needs into the design of two new large public parks currently being planned for East Nashville.

“We wanted to build these plans around maintenance,” Netsch said. “To make it unavoidable to reckon with maintenance.”

For Thomas Woltz, FASLA, that meant diving deep into the sites’ cultural and ecological histories. On the future site of Ravenwood Park, just east of downtown Nashville, Woltz said: “an extraordinary phenomenon here is you have 8,000 years of Native American settlement in a not terribly disturbed site.”

“What if, in the cultural landscape research, you hit upon a regime of maintenance? What if the maintenance design is right there, deep within the soil?”

In the case of Ravenwood Park, NBW has proposed a mixed regime of controlled burns and grazing by cows, maintenance practices that reflect the history of the site and provide valuable ecological disturbance that will maintain broad expanses of open grassland.

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Master Plan for Ravenwood Park, Nashville / Nelson Byrd Woltz

For Woltz, it is here that the “disturbing pleasures”–or pleasures that result from disturbance–reveal themselves. “Part of the disturbing pleasure is the exhilaration of witnessing a fire,” he said, “and the sublime landscape of these post-fire moments when the earth surges with this chartreuse explosion of grasses.”

This aesthetic of disturbance can reframe the conversation around maintenance and even create opportunities to design powerful spaces and experiences.

To illustrate this point, Woltz pivoted to another major public project that NBW has spent many years on: Houston’s Memorial Park.

In their research, NBW found that many Houstonians were unaware of the park’s history and did not know why it was called Memorial Park. The site was used as an army camp in World War I and was the last stop for many soldiers before being shipped to Europe.

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Aerial photo of Camp Logan, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz

NBW’s design calls for a 90 acre Memorial Grove of Loblolly Pines planted in a strict, regimented grid, referring to the character of the military exercises and rows of tents that once defined the site. The heart of NBW’s proposal, however, lies in the grove’s maintenance regime.

“Twenty-five years is the average age of the solider that died in World War I who trained at Camp Logan. Twenty-five years is the age of maturity for loblolly pines in the timber industry,” Woltz explained.

“So, twenty-five years from the planting of the Memorial Groves, imagine one of those regiments–a thousand trees–ceremonially chainsawed down on Memorial Day. The noise, the impact, the violence, the horror of seeing a thousand trees felled at once in a city’s park will be something you will never forget. And you just might feel, in your body, the sense and the power of sacrifice and of loss of life.”

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Rendering of the Memorial Grove at Memorial Park, Houston / Nelson Byrd Woltz

Woltz said that the timber from the felled trees would then be given to Habitat for Humanity to build affordable housing in the Houston area. He envisions Houstonians coming together on Armistice Day to replant the thousand felled trees for another twenty-five year cycle. Every five years, a new group of trees would be felled.

“This is a memorial, in perpetuity, connecting us to the cycles of life, connecting us to the power of life, the beauty of these trees representing these individuals who were felled far, far, too early.”

“As an extreme example, this is a maintenance regime. Maintenance has been used as the very crux of a memorial landscape.”

52 Ways to Ignite Your Creative Spark

A Few Minutes of Design / Princeton Architectural Press

The mission of the Creative Education Trust in London is to empower kids through creativity and design thinking. Partnering with Princeton Architectural Press, they created A Few Minutes of Design, which offers 52 activities to encourage inventiveness. This well-crafted little packet of fun may work just as well for inspiring creativity among children and young adults as it does for rekindling the spark of a semi-burnt-out designer confronting endless deadlines.

The trust believes “creativity is the ability to find connections between the things we know and to turn these connections into new ideas and action. The academic arts and the sciences, practical subjects and life skills all need creativity. Creativity is highly valued by employers. With knowledge, skills, and creativity, every young individual is equipped to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.”

To appeal to as broad a group of people as possible, Emily Campbell — who is director of programs at the trust and a former graphic designer and design director at a government agency — clearly devised activities with many design disciplines in mind. There are engaging exercises not only for budding graphic and industrial designers, but also landscape architects, urban planners, and architects.

Campbell thinks the 52 activities, which are found on small note cards with instructions on the front and information or images on the back, are deeper than they first appear.

“The cards evoke what it’s like to be a designer through a series of accessible, concise exercises. Some ask you to draw and write; some ask you to classify, others to distinguish or explain. Some tasks are singular; others have several variations. All of them ask you to perform a rudimentary act of design by following plain-language instructions. Although the lessons in these exercises may at first seem minor in comparison to the grand vision — the ‘killer concept’ or ‘problem solved’– small moves and decisions such as these have a powerful influence on the success of any design.”

Some intriguing activities for landscape-minded creators:

Simplify, Then Multiply: “Identify a shape within the photo. Draw or trace the shape, leaving out shadows, highlights, and complicated details so that you have a simplified version. You may to need to invent parts of the shape that are not in view. Imagine that your simplified shape is no. 1 in a series or family of 3. What rules would govern the shape of nos. 2 and 3? Draw them.”

A Few Minutes of Design / Jared Green

Joint Endeavor: “Explain in a drawing how you would join the objects or materials. You can cut them and/or multiply them if you need to. Label the drawing with instructions.”

A Few Minutes of Design / Jared Green

Organizing Rules: One of my favorites — and easy for those with messy drawers, bags, or purses: “Empty onto a surface the contents of your bag, pencil case, desk drawer, or any other container that holds a variety of small, handheld objects. Think of a method or rule for organizing the objects. Organize them into a composition following your own rule. Take a photo of your composition.”

A Few Minutes of Design / Jared Green

Lastly, there is a well-known landscape architect who asks her employees and interns to do a similar exercise — also 100 times (!) — when confronted with a design challenge:

Object 100 Ways: Draw as many uses as you can think of for the object. What qualities, or properties, does this object have? How else could these properties be used? You can multiply the basic unit, add materials, cut the object, reshape it, or otherwise modify it.”

A Few Minutes of Design / Jared Green

On second thought, that may take more than a few minutes.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (August 15 – 31)

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A colonnade of palms inside Rio de Janeiro’s botanical garden / Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket

A Guide to Rio de Janeiro’s Coastal Cool The New York Times, 8/17/18
“From historical gardens to feats of Modernist architecture, what to see and where to stay in the beloved Brazilian city.”

This New Park Is Designed for a Future of Flooded Cities Fast Company, 8/20/18
“Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn Centennial Park can hold a million gallons of rainwater to help control the city’s increasing floods.”

10 Urban Sanctuaries Well Worth a Visit The Santa Maria Times, 8/25/18
“A foray into the heart of a city can be made all the more memorable and enjoyable with a visit to a public park.”

Why Your Favorite Bench Might Be There to Thwart a Terrorist Attack The Washington Post, 8/27/18
“When landscape architects recently began redesigning a wide, red-brick sidewalk in Washington’s Chinatown, they initially ­focused on improving the storm-water runoff and making it easier for pedestrians to navigate safely.”

Atwater Beach Groundbreaking Signals Next Big Thing for Detroit Riverfront The Detroit Free Press, 8/27/18
“The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy broke ground Monday afternoon on Atwater Beach, the latest addition to the city’s waterfront attractions.”

Monarch Landing Designer Relishes Opportunity to See Community’s Growth The Chicago Tribune, 8/28/18
“Most people visiting or residing at Monarch Landing in Naperville see the beautiful senior living community for what it is now, thriving gardens, thriving residents and all.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (July 16 – 31)

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Aerial view of Hunters Point South’s ‘Peninsula’ / Bill Tatham / SWA/balsley

Abandoned Industrial Landscape Transformed into New Waterfront Park in NYC Designboom, 7/17/18
“New York has welcomed a waterfront park at hunter’s point south, a mixed-use development in long island city.”

A Mile High and 20,000 Acres Deep: How Denver’s Parks Make Growth Livable Next City, 7/19/18
“Meanwhile, advocates for open space, from elected officials, non-profit leaders, both public and private sector champions, have been busily developing strategies for Denver’s great, enduring and largely unsung hero — the parks system.”

Transforming Stormwater from a Nuisance to a Necessity Pacific Standard, 7/20/18
“A conversation with Morgan Shimabuku about municipal stormwater leaders, overcoming barriers, and how better use of stormwater can increase climate change resilience.”

Perkins+Will Architect: Atlanta Should Tap Potential of Chattahoochee, Freedom ParkCurbed Atlanta, 7/27/18
“In an op-ed, landscape pro with the firm behind the Beltline asserts: We can transform Atlanta’s identity from one of standstill traffic to a network of green.”

24,000 Documents Detailing Life of Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Now Available Online Smithsonian, 7/31/18
“When 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was 14 years old, his natural affinity for the rural New England outdoors took a dangerous turn when a brush with poison sumac left him half-blinded.”

The Desert Gardens of Steve Martino

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Desert Gardens of Steve Marino / Monacelli Press

The work of landscape architect Steve Martino, FASLA, derives its interest and relevance from a simple notion: the desert landscape should be celebrated, not ignored. This notion is expertly manifested in the 21 gardens featured in the new book Desert Gardens of Steve Martino, edited by Caren Yglesias, Affil. ASLA, and photographed by Steve Gunther.

Gunther’s photographs give great insight into how a desert garden can not only be robust but even lush. It’s Martino’s brisk and charming introduction, however, that provides the book’s greatest insight into the catalogued projects.

Martino came to landscape by way of architecture, which he studied at Arizona State University in the 1960s. It was through this education that Martino says he experienced a set of epiphanies.

The first epiphany was that landscape was mostly eyewash. A client could spend tremendous amounts of money and achieve a sub-par result.

Another was: why weren’t all architects also landscape architects? It seemed irresponsible to leave the site design to someone else. Martino pursued this instinct, working for architectural firms on their site designs.

And, lastly — as for the native desert plants he was told to avoid using — Martino suspected they held more potential than expected.

This suspicion was confirmed by Ron Gass, a nursery-owner with an encyclopedic knowledge of native desert plants, whom Martino holds in great esteem. Martino, out of a job at one point during the 1970s, went to work at Gass’ nursery and learned as much as he could.

In the meantime, Martino marketed himself as a designer of “outdoor space,” a term many of the architects he interviewed with found unnerving. Much like the desert gardens Martino wished to promulgate, outdoor space seemed an oxymoron.

Martino persisted and received opportunities to expand the use of desert plants in his work, “connecting a project to the adjacent desert.” Their use did much more, Martino soon realized. They lent his projects an ecological intelligence and environmental stability that only proved more prescient in the following decades.

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Many of Martino’s projects reinforce the connection between the garden and their larger landscape context, like this example from Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

Martino’s work often juxtaposes desert vegetation with architectural structures, a relationship he describes as “weeds and walls.” One such example is the Palo Cristi garden, where the heavy influence of architect Luis Barragán, as requested by the garden’s owners, can be seen. The simple, clean lines of Martino’s walls frame and complement spindly, spiky plants that seem like colorful guests at a garden party. Sun is a design material that Martino deploys or limits in turn.

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The Barragán-inspired walls of Palo Crisit Garden / The Monacelli Press

Martino often plays up the space demanded by desert vegetation — the effect is to put certain specimens on display. And sculptural works are used to reinforce the character of these plants. In the Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona, steel rebar evoking woody desert plants crowns a fireplace.

Baja Garden in Paradise Valley, Arizona / The Monacelli Press

In other instances of Martino’s work, the hand of the designer is adroitly hidden behind a more naturalistic planting scheme. The Greene-Sterling Garden, also in Paradise Valley, Arizona, features desert trees that were allowed to grow to the ground, much the way they would grow in their natural habitat. This also did away with the need for understory plants.

When Martino started out, he had to argue for the incorporation of environmental intelligence such as this into his design work. The ensuing decades have proved Martino right.

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

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Ala Moana Beach Park, Honolulu, Hawaii / John Hook

A Retail District in Houston Reimagines the Strip Mall, One Building at a Time The Architect’s Newspaper, 3/5/18
“Caution and timidity have been the ruling traits of Houston’s commercial real estate market for the past three decades.”

The Future of Honolulu Depends on Its Parks Next City, 3/5/18
“Public parks have emerged as battlegrounds in the city’s response to a changing climate and a growing housing crisis. Could they also hold the solutions?”

Building a ‘Second Nature’ Into Our Cities: Wildness, Art and Biophilic Design The Conversation, 3/7/18
“Given the increasing popularity of this urban design technique, it’s time to take a closer look at the meaning of nature and its introduction into our cities.”

Climate Readiness: Think Big, Act Fast The Boston Globe, 3/8/18
“Until recently, Boston was ahead of other cities in planning for sea-level rise and the effects of climate change before a catastrophic storm like Sandy or Harvey hit.”

In Britain’s Playgrounds, ‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience The New York Times, 3/10/18
“Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now, cautiously, getting into the business of providing it.”

The Gateway Arch, a Global Icon, Reconnects to St. Louis CityLab, 3/12/18
“St. Louis’ Gateway Arch once stood in splendid isolation. A new $380-million renovation of its grounds brings it closer to downtown.”

Concrete Jungle Hong Kong to Get Diverse Array of Plants on Urban Streets in Drive to Green the City The South China Morning Post, 3/14/18
“About 20 tree and shrub species can now be found across urban areas but this will increase to 120, with city planners shown how to ‘match plants to places.’”

How Can Cities Best Plan for Future Growth?

Model of Manhattan’s grid / Pinterest

The world’s cities are growing at a rapid pace. By 2030, nearly 70 percent of people will live in urban areas. Cities not only face immense challenges related to climate change, migration, mobility, infrastructure, equity, and security, but are also dealing with the problems associated with scaling up to meet rapid growth.

So how can cities better plan for future challenges and growth? Dr. Blair Ruble, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, tried to answer that question by illustrating ways cities are grappling with the new reality, in a discussion at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, which was moderated by Gordon Feller, founder of Meeting of the Minds, a non-profit network focused on cities.

First, Ruble said, growth must be accommodated through the right framework. “We have a very good example in our own country. In 1811, a bunch of commissioners sat down and planned a grid for an empty island of Manhattan. They created a framework, and that’s the mode we need to get into when we talk about the future of cities.”

But the amount of future planning needed is incredible. “When you think about a billion people and limited resources in the context of a planet struggling with climate change and migration, you realize this is an enormous challenge,” he said.

A silver lining might be where the growth is happening. In the U.S., where the population will be 400 million by 2050, most growth will occur in secondary cities. “Mega-cities have actually kind of plateaued,” Ruble said. “Most of the growth in cities right now is taking place in so-called medium cities of 5 to 10 million people.” Mid-sized cities’ manageable population size leaves an opportunity for more thoughtful development and policies that can enable sustainable urban growth.

As an example, Ruble pointed to future settlement planning in the Central Asian country of Kazakstan, as well as efforts to retrofit existing infrastructure in Africa and South America. Cities there have enabled government services to be available in self-built neighborhoods.

In addition to integrating a growing number of people, cities are grappling with a massive flow of data. Ruble said unless cities focus on the human component of data collection, they can be caught up in collecting data for data’s sake.

“The actual numbers are not the end themselves,” Ruble said. “Cities don’t just exist to generate data for analysts to play with. Connected to each information point is a human being.”

Issues of inequality should be front and center in any discussion of urban challenges. 

Take Toronto, and Canada more broadly. There is generally a more multicultural definition of citizenship than in the U.S. Still, racial inequality persists. Ruble pointed to a 2017 survey on the state of the Black population in Toronto showing 72 percent of respondents between ages 20 and 40 who identified as Black had been stopped by police; and data shows Blacks are “much more likely to be shot by police” than any other group.

“To address that problem, you can use all the technology you want, but if you don’t begin to get real about the limitations of your own vision of multiculturalism, the technology isn’t going to help.”

Flexible urban systems will be key to recognizing challenges and issues as they arise and adjusting course. “Urban success is not a noun, it’s a verb,” Ruble said.