Chip Sullivan, FASLA, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, believes there are mysteries in our landscapes that defy explanation. In an otherworldly session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, he bypassed the usual scientific explanations, delving into mythology, mysticism, conspiracies, and irrationality. “Have you been alone in the woods and felt some strange presence? What the hell is that?,” he asked.
Sullivan wants to find out where these ideas about the landscape come from. In the early 1920s in the United Kingdom, amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins came up with the theory of ley lines, which he believed were underlying alignments of landscape forms. And in 1969, author John Mitchell revived the idea in his New Age book The View Over Atlantis, which explored the “hidden currents of the landscape.”
These ideas aren’t new. Chinese Feng Shui practitioners in the East have long associated the landscape with unseen energy flows. In ancient Western mythology, nature’s power has a prominent role. “The woods were once the sacred domain of the gods and goddesses. Apollo had a sacred grove, and Zeus, a prophetic oak.” The Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece sat on a tripod stool over a crack in the earth, “breathing fumes from the earth’s core” when issuing her prophecies. In Ireland, there were sacred wells, which were portals to the underworld. “Today, we throw coins into wishing wells. Why is that?”
Like Australian aborigines — with their “dream time that enables them access to a parallel reality” — landscape architects can use dreams to tap into another world of design. For example, Michelangelo apparently came up with his unique steps in the Laurentian Library in Florence in a dream. And Sullivan pointed to surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who would dream and then quickly paint his visions.
With Robert Hewitt, ASLA, associate professor at Clemson University, Sullivan put together a group design project that unearthed his students’ dreams. He thinks landscape architects can “integrate dreams into the design process.” As an experiment, he asks designers to “put a sketchbook next to your bed and before you go to sleep focus on a a design problem. Upon waking, replay your dream, record the sequence, catalogue ideas.”
Landscape architects need to once again connect with the spiritual side, the alchemy of landscape. “Landscape architecture doesn’t turn lead into gold, but it’s the ultimate transmutation of one element into another.” With nature as a guide, landscape architects can make their studios like an alchemist’s library, divining new ways to “sublimate, bio-remediate, and distill” natural elements into new forms and substances.
Like Voodoo priests in Haiti, landscape architects can “use the genius loci, the spirit of a place,” to maximum effect. For example, he believes the crescent shape of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans delta is a sort of amplifying device, like out of Ghostbusters. “There is a reason deltas are a symbol in alchemy. They are the birthplaces of civilization.”
And he then expanded his discussion to the powerful role mythological figures can play in landscapes, given they are an ever-present undercurrent. In the early renaissance-era Nymphaeum of Italy “woodland deities were brought out into the landscape.”
Muses can be brought back to play a modern role in linking the conscious and subconscious. Today, “we need to put gods and goddesses back into the landscape. Where is the spiritual aspect?”
To boost resilience in vulnerable, under-served communities, we need to “build their adaptive capacity, their ability to work together. We need to focus on the ‘software’ of those communities,” argued architect Christine Mondor in a session at the 2016 GreenBuild in Los Angeles. Communities hard hit by population loss, declining incomes, environmental degradation, and widespread health problems in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were the focus of discussion.
Fred Brown, with the Kingsley Association, described how Larimer and Homewood, two predominately African American and poor communities in Pittsburgh, have seen a nearly 80 percent population decline over the past few decades. There, the poverty rate has hit nearly 40 percent. Asthma rates are twice the national average. And 20 percent of the school population is homeless.
Using the 2Gen model created at Harvard University, Brown’s group and others are trying to re-weave a support network for vulnerable youth. “We invest in parents to invest in kids.” See a brief video that explains the theory:
He helps under-performing schools become hubs for these efforts, and catalysts for community renewal, providing life-long learning opportunities for parents and help in meeting “basic needs.”
His broader goal is to release the “collective genius” of these communities, empowering them to forge their own path to resilience and sustainability. Larimer recently won a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create a comprehensive sustainability plan, install bioswales for stormwater management, distribute cisterns for grey water reuse, and tap renewable energy. Brown is helping these communities build their “Green IQ,” so they can better take advantage of government assistance.
Brian Wolovich, a middle school teacher and city council member in Millvale — another poor community in Pittsburgh with lung cancer rates double the national average — described how he led a bottom-up community effort, with multiple stakeholder groups, to boost community sustainability and resilience.
Working with Mondor’s firm Evolve, the community forged an ecodistrict plan that resulted in residences replacing inefficient light bulbs with LEDs and adding solar panels to save on energy use, and installing rain barrels and gardens to reduce flooding. The community raised funds to build a new library, which is covered in solar panels, and came together to create a bioswale along the Allegheny River, eliminating flooding for multiple families. (Imagine Millvale documents many of these plans and projects, and Launch Millvale focuses on their local food production).
Mondor explained how she helps communities like Millvale “think like a district.” She argued that “projects alone don’t make change; you need governance.” Governance can be more effective if existing “tribes” are tapped and “leveraged to reach scale.” Communities will succeed if they can make decisions well together, cultivate “authentic” leadership, share knowledge, and create a legal governance structure.
Another way to scale up these valuable community-led projects is to bring in external investment in a responsible way. Eve Picker, who has launched Small Change, one of the first crowd-funding websites for real estate development projects, is looking to help under-served communities like Larimer and Millvale. She thinks these places are “ripe for development because banks don’t want to be in under-served communities; they want to be in booming ones.” Picker finances unique restoration projects others developers have missed along with “tiny houses,” which have proven popular with everyone except banks. She said some $3.5 billion has been raised from crowd-funding sites to date, but there is a $480 billion opportunity.
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, is principal of DesignJones LLC based in New Orleans, Louisiana. DesignJones won the ASLA 2016 Community Service Award. Jones Allen was associate professor of landscape architecture at Morgan State University. Her book Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Suburban Form will be published by Routledge in April, 2017.
Here in New Orleans, you have been involved in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Ten years after the storm, what has changed? Has anything improved?
Ten years after the storm, the community has totally changed. The Lower Ninth Ward had about 18,000 residents before Katrina. Today, it has roughly 6,000, so two-thirds of the population is gone. There were over 1,000 vacant lots before the storm; now, there’s about 7,000.
There are little pockets of improvement where houses have been built, but a lot of housing still needs to be built. Improvement means there was a plan that things were going to get better.
In New Orleans, 100,000 African Americans have not returned. They’re in Houston, Atlanta, Baltimore or Los Angeles. When you lose that amount of a population, it affects the overall culture, economy — everything.
So the Lower Nine is a different Lower Nine. 6,000 remain. Some were here pre-Katrina, but there’s an influx of new people. There is a lot of vacant land that needs to become housing.
Over the past decade, has planning and design improved the lives of low-income communities in New Orleans? If so, how?
When Katrina happened, one of the responses afterwards was to shut down or restructure public housing. It’s never good to be poor or live in subsidized housing, but it was a lot easier before, because the public housing was located adjacent to Canal Street, so people were close to where they worked and other families. Someone said the underground drug culture even changed, because the city spread these people all around, whereas before they were in one place.
When you close down that much public housing, there’s a lot of people who don’t have housing. Some of the housing, like Lafitte and Magnolia Housing, still have low-income residents, but there were a lot of restrictions in terms of felony records that kept people from coming back. Public housing in the most desirable neighborhoods became market rate and mixed income.
So a large portion of the people in public housing — poor people — were shifted to New Orleans East, which is across the Industrial Canal and has little public transit infrastructure. New Orleans East is a transit desert. (This is discussed in my forthcoming book, Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access, and Urban Form). New Orleans East is not currently a job center. They just rebuilt the hospital there 11 years later. And a lot of the affluent African American community that was in New Orleans East left. So now you have a population that’s under-served and underprivileged or shifted away from resources.
For some people, New Orleans is much better. If you live in one of the nicer neighborhoods or are a young person that came from afar, there are all these tech and movie jobs. There are many new stores and restaurants.
In my opinion, Katrina was a boom for some people and a bust for many others.
FEMA’s new flood map for New Orleans marks 50 percent of the city as “safe,” meaning homeowners and commercial property owners in these zones don’t need to buy flood insurance. According to NPR, “Intermap analyzed thousands of coastal properties and found virtually no difference between FEMA’s high and low risk zones, two neighborhoods might have different insurance rates but essentially the same risk of actual physical flooding.” What does this say to you about the flood insurance system in New Orleans?
Damage from flooding in New Orleans is not all based on geography like in other places. It’s not all based on whether you’re in the flood zone. For instance, the Lower Ninth Ward is not the lowest area in the city, but the flood walls were not structurally sound. We also have to look at dredging. They dredged the Mississippi Gulf Outlet, which allowed salt water intrusion, so there was no protection from the storm surge. So there are a lot of man-made factors that influence what happened.
Flood insurance isn’t affordable. Post-Katrina a lot of people who can’t afford it have been shifted to places that are low and at risk. They’ve been shifted to New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish. They’re living in lower areas and have to pay a higher flood rate.
It’s really complicated because much of the situation is man-made.
Last year, the city released its first ever comprehensive resilience strategy, in part financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which emphasized environmental adaptation, equity and governance. In your experience, what differentiates a resilient community from one that is not?
Many times when these plans are done, the most affected don’t participate.
The French Quarter and Garden District, which actually happen to be on the higher land, are economically valuable. People come to the city to be there. But New Orleans East is valuable, because the people who actually shape much of the culture, and make the art and music, serve the drinks, and shuck the oysters, live there.
Resiliency plans only work to me if they’re going to be resilient and sustained, if they’re going to create community stewards and stakeholders. I’m using all that design outreach language, but, you know. The most effective plans are co-generated with the community, because they are the ones who are going to be impacted by what happens.
People realize we’re living with water. But the question is: how do we protect the landscape, but also protect the rights of everyone?
Earlier this year, Louisiana received $95 million from the Rebuild by Design competition to adapt to climate change. Some of those funds will also help the tribal Houma community on Isle de Jean Charles, whose land has submerged by an amazing 98 percent since 1955, move to a new location. Given New Orleans is experiencing both sea level rise and sinking land, can you imagine this city conducting a strategic retreat in places, or have to move communities wholesale to new locations?
Right after Katrina, there was the “green dot plan,” which basically asked, “Why should people be allowed to come back, for instance, to the Lower Nine? Why should people be able to come back into a place that would flood?”
We are experiencing sea level rise and coastal erosion. A lot of that erosion is man-made because of dredging and shipping channels.
For me, the solution is rethinking density and diversity and helping people realize they’re going to have to live closer together with different people. We also have to densify so you can move people together safely, but keep them in the same region.
When Katrina occurred, a lot of people moved to Baton Rouge, because they thought that was safe. Now we just had flooding in Baton Rouge. We want to stay in our state and region. We should — it’s rich in heritage and culture and unique.
But we’re going to have to rethink how we live on the land. We’re going to have to be more sustainable in terms of how we use our resources and infrastructure. Right now, we all want to spread out and live in our own space. Sea level rise, flooding, coastal erosion are fighting against that way of living.
On a panel at the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) summit on the new landscape declaration, you discussed the concerns you have with landscape architecture students and professors helicoptering into low-income communities to help with a project for a semester, often not to be seen again. What can landscape architecture programs do to more deeply engage and connect in these places where they want to help?
Professors need to do a lot of preparation before the semester starts. They need to take time to bring the community into the preparation, understand the situation, create a partnership with the community, and then come up with an action plan of what you’re leaving. A design studio is really about the students learning. They only have a semester, so what value are these 20 or so students really going offer for these communities?
Yesterday at the ASLA Annual Meeting, we hosted a field session called Beyond the Edge. We visited three communities dealing with critical life and death situations. One is living on a landfill, the other one’s living next to the port, and the other one is dealing with a prison population. My trepidation was whether it was even a good thing to bring the field trip there.
My trepidation was: will I be bringing these people in to gawk? After a lot of discussion with members of the community, they wanted people to come. So we were able to meet with them, and they actually invited us into their homes. We went to a community college and talked with community members. We came up with a follow-through so we could reach out to them after this session.
In a nutshell, that’s what should happen if you’re going to do engagement. You have to really work with the community beforehand. The field session generated so many ideas, a lot of positive energy, and was good experience for the attendees and community. People who went on the session came up to me saying, “Thank you.”
It’s good for students to understand first hand and learn how to relate to other people. Our profession can solve problems. But you can’t helicopter in and out. You have to think about what you are leaving them, what’s going to happen after your semester’s over, because some pretty plans are not going to help them. You have to help the community translate them into some sort of reality.
At the LAF, you also said, “If we,” meaning landscape architects, “as a whole, truly want diversity, we need to focus less on statistics and instead recognize and praise diversity and lift it up.” What are some specific ways landscape architects can better lift up diversity?
It’s important to look to the future and reach out to young people and increase the number and the diversity within the profession. But in order to do that, young people need to see people who look like themselves. That was my point about recognizing and using the diversity we have in the profession to further increase diversity.
Firms can use their diversity. If you have women, or people from diverse cultures in your firms, put them in the forefront sometimes, so that clients and communities can see and say, “Oh, there’s somebody like me,” or, “This profession is diverse.”
And try to increase the diversity in your firm and also work in diverse communities. Your firm might not be diverse, but if your projects are in communities with people different from yourself, you’re actually letting the community know this profession is out there. You can get people to start thinking, “landscape architecture can help solve my problems, and the problems in my community. Maybe this is something that I want to do.”
Use the diversity you have, increase your diversity, and work in diverse communities.
“Top tech companies now expect their campuses to do the heavy lifting in retaining talent,” argued Aaron Ross with BNIM in a session at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Along with Ross, Stephen Spears, FASLA, Design Workshop, and Rene Bihan, FASLA, SWA Group, showed how leading tech companies are trying to hold on to their top talent by creating exciting little bits of urban life in suburban environments. These firms are attempting to further merge work and home and create spaces for fun as well. And they may be creating new models for working that may filter out to other suburban corporate campuses in coming decades.
In northwest Austin, Texas, one of the booming tech hubs of the south, Design Workshop transformed an out-dated 1980s IBM campus into a new headquarters for Charles Schwab, which features a sustainable landscape design with more natural stormwater management, and a neighboring community called The Domain for those employees to work, live, and hang out (see image above). There, an old IBM chip manufacturing plant became 1.5 million square feet in office space, 1.9 million square feet of retail, and 2.5 million square feet of multi-family housing. “Schwab benefits from having these amenities so close by.”
Design Workshop focused on connectivity. Workers at Schwab can now easily take a quick walk via nature trails to the office or to a bar after work for happy hour. Inside the new community, particularly the night-life corridor, there are “purposefully-narrow” streets set in grids that create a sense of intimacy and community. “The injection of social life into a corporate environment is a paradigm shift.”
For the Pacific Center campus in San Jose, BNIM created a new campus master plan and added two new buildings in a space next to Louis Kahn’s famed Salk Institute. Pulling in the existing nature trails that wind through the valley into the new campus, BNIM wove elements of the surrounding landscape into the new development, which features 250,000 square feet of new office and lab space. The landscape is the inspiration for the ecological design found in small outdoor “chill spaces.” The landscape became a “virus” that infected other places on campus, said Ross.
Employees, who are mostly scientists, wanted more intimate spaces rather than larger gathering spots. “They want to get out of the building and immerse themselves in nature.” Still, a new central lawn provides a “flex space,” and a new soccer field is “utterly packed.”
Beyond integrating architectural bioswales and native plants, they also created a small garden tended by a local non-profit, which harvests the produce and then sells it to the campus’ cafeteria.
Bihan quoted one CEO who said: “no one ever had a good idea while sitting at their computer.” Famed Apple CEO Steve Jobs “loved walking meetings.” The new understanding among big tech firms out West is “landscape is the great enabler.”
In SWA Group’s newest corporate campus projects, “urban planning and campus landscape design merge. Campuses are infilling to boost walkability.” They are also going beyond offering goodies like on-site food and sports fields; they are becoming “informal, contained, and urban.”
For the San Antonio Station project in California, SWA Group developed a campus “on spec” for a developer who then leased it to the top-secret lab of one of the leading Silicon Valley company (Bihan asked that the firm remain unnamed). They transformed the mid-century Mayfield Mall by architect Victor Gruen, which later became a training center for Hewlett-Packard, into 500,000 square feet of office space by using tactical urbanist strategies, strategically cutting into the building and turning a parking garage into spaces for enjoyment.
SWA Group “designed places for people to play, just like how they engage in a city.” And they were more “focused on context — the specificity of the corporate culture — not how the design looks.”
It’s a bit of “urban place making” in a “suburban context.”
This well-edited exhibition is perhaps the best of NBM’s recent triptych of landscape architecture exhibitions, which included a survey of the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, and a retrospective of Oehme van Sweden’s work. The curious flow of the exhibition enables discovery. Around each corner are Halprin’s surprising drawings and dioramas, and photographs graciously donated by some of the country’s leading architectural photographers.
The exhibition moves through 35 sites chronologically, from his early residential work through to his first forays into the public realm, from the hallmarks of his Modernist designs to his post-Modern work in the late 70s and early 80s, and, finally, his capstone projects before his death in 2009.
Some themes emerge. Throughout his career, Halprin enjoyed partnering with artists. He purposefully created room for art works, knowing they add rich, pleasing layers. Gould Garden in Berkeley, California, created from the late 50s to 1960, shows one of his early partnerships with artist Jacques Overhoff, who molded bas-relief panels in concrete around Halprin’s pool.
Halprin believed in cities. When many people abandoned the urban cores after the race riots, Halprin saw opportunities for regrowth. His Portland open space sequence, with its three-part necklace of Modernist parks, was created from 1965-70 and demonstrated his early commitment. Moeller argued “it changed perceptions of downtown Portland.” And New York Times architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable, who was not generous with the compliments, called the sequence “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.” (The sequence is now on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is in need of major repair. A $4.5 million rehabilitation effort begins next year).
Halprin was all about “animating the landscape through choreography,” particularly the movement of water. The first thing you see when you enter the exhibition is a 10-foot-tall watercolor drawing of water moving around rocks. But if you look closely, you will see Halprin drew arrows to indicate the currents’ directions; he was mapping the choreography of a shore eddy.
Moeller thinks Halprin was deeply influenced by his wife Anna, who was a dancer. “He adapted her ideas by ‘scoring’ for human activity.” In his UN Plaza in San Francisco, he applied a design approach he called “motation,” which is described in the exhibition as “scoring how perception of the environment changes depending on the speed and motion of the observer.”
The exhibition, of course, includes beautiful photographs of his masterpieces: the Frankin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is a culmination of his life-long collaboration with artists; Freeway Park in Seattle, which creates a sense of movement through water and sculpted concrete and initiated a new landscape type — the park over a highway; and Sea Ranch in California, which showed how ecological community design should be done.
Sea Ranch in particular is made fresh by new photographs that show how Halprin ingeniously used berms reminiscent of military forts to both hide buildings and pools and create wind blocks. As Birnbaum explained, “Halprin was one of the first to think of landscape as infrastructure.”
Many of Halprin’s landscapes are under threat of demolition or a slow death from a lack of maintenance. Birnbaum hopes this exhibition will help “raise awareness of their value.” It’s a bit ironic given Halprin’s influence can be found in so many contemporary projects. Birnbaum even sees his impact on the High Line in New York City, where James Corner choreographed a continual dance between observer and observed.
“The United States will be a majority-minority country by 2043,” said Kona Gray, ASLA, a principal at EDSA, at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Unfortunately, landscape architects have been slow to adapt to this new reality, as the profession is still overwhelmingly white. Soon they must realize that “diverse firms will hold the competitive advantage.” This is because increasingly-diverse clients want to see someone who looks like themselves on the other side of the table.
ASLA’s plenary hosted a dynamic and diverse panel, with Gray, a firm principal and African American; Ron Sims, a former deputy secretary of the department of housing and urban development and African American; Mark Rios, FASLA, a founder of Rios Clementi Hale, and a “hybrid” gay man of European and Mexican heritage; Diana Fernandez, ASLA, a landscape architect with Sasaki Associates and a Dominican who emigrated to the U.S. at a young age; and Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, a principal at OLIN and Caucasian.
Each panelist brought a unique perspective on diversity:
“Diversity is what makes life interesting,” Rios argued. Much of his work is in Los Angeles, where 54 percent of the population doesn’t speak English at home; instead they speak one of 224 languages. He said diversity can be celebrated through “authentic, genuine, appropriate, complex, layered, rich stories.” These stories can be told through ecological and cultural diversity in landscapes.
Fernandez, who “grew up in the ghetto,” said “landscape architects haven’t caught up. A diversity of design means a diversity of creative experiences.” Diverse landscape architects can “better relate to the diverse people they serve.” She wants more diverse firms to step up their engagement in underserved multiracial communities.
Landscape architects “should embrace other cultures because other cultures have something to share,” said Gray, who grew up in Liberia, western Africa. His firm, EDSA, encourages diversity and finances a scholarship for minorities. This is all part of an effort to better “respect other cultures and mirror the people we serve.”
Diverse firms may do even more to help diverse communities. For Sims, it’s critical that landscape architects help those communities most in need, which are also those with the least amount of green space and trees. “Zip codes are a life determinant. We can map tree canopies, and the places with more trees have improved life outcomes.”
Sanders, who perhaps acted as a bridge to the largely-white audience, argued that “embracing change is hard. We retreat to habits of the mind. We are not separate from each other, but it takes work for most people to see others as the same. It’s vitally important that we connect with the common core of humanity. Every life matters and everyone deserves respect.”
Asked by Gray what firms can do to boost diversity right now, each responded:
Rios: “Diversity has to be a deliberate decision. Figure out what you can do to contribute. Write it down like a business plan. Set goals to make your practice more diverse and act on them.”
Sanders: “The opportunity to be on this panel has been transforming for me. I’ve signed up for a course at the university on hidden bias. Every firm needs to do something.”
Fernandez: “Sasaki conducted a survey on diversity and discovered it had a lot of work to do. Our profession realized it didn’t reflect the people it serves. There was a lot of candid conversations. There needs to be conversation around implicit bias.”
Environmental justice, which is about the fair distribution of environmental benefits and costs, is a “growing concern” among landscape architects across the globe, said Kurt Culbertson, FASLA, Design Workshop. For example, in ASLA’s 2016 Student Awards, 68 percent of the award-winning designs focused on environmental and social justice.
Good intentions for people and the environment can lead to bad results if they are pursued in an unfair way. Yu focused on villages demolished to create an urban greenbelt around Shanghai. In the name of “good will,” 100 square kilometers, comprised of thousands of villages surrounding the city, were demolished to make way for another population explosion in Shanghai, which has expanded 4 times in 20 years.
Villages were demolished and parks were built, but to what end? “Goodwill may not necessarily lead to a good or justifiable result,” said Yu.
Green space is central to the equitable growth of cities, said Jordanian Senator Mahadin, who was a landscape architect before becoming a politician.
The Jordanian city Aqaba, which has grown by over 180,000 people in recent decades, has handled it’s growth successfully, in part because it is one of the “few cities in the Middle East with a master plan that holds green space” as important.
The master plan holds that the Port of Aqaba – the only one in Jordan – should not be further developed, but held for the people. “Cities are not painted by landscape architects or architects, they are painted by the people.”
Mahadin made a pitch for more landscape architects to push for environmental justice through politics. “Lead by example.”
“Landscape is a human right,” Schjetnan argued. Landscape has the ability to de-marginalize people and integrate them into society.
Preserving landscape is especially critical in developing-world cities, which are “not developing, so much as developing too quickly through accelerated growth. Four-fifths of the world is like this,” he added, “neither developed nor undeveloped – just growing too quickly.”
In Schjetnan’s Mexico City, and many other exploding cities, landscapes are deteriorating due to worsening problems with congestion, natural resource depletion, water and air pollution, especially for those communities with lower incomes.
In the developing urban world, many more landscape architects and designers, particularly from minority groups, are needed if the goal is more just cities.
In New Orleans’ City Park, Grow Dat Youth Farm nurtures young leaders through the important and meaningful work of growing food. Started in 2011 on 4 acres, the program has grown to 7 acres and produces 20,000 pounds of produce a year. It is a successful operation, to be sure. Yet, as Johanna Gilligan, with Grow Dat, said at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, the farm struggles with systemic issues, something a thoughtful landscape architect could help them solve.
Landscape architects are “generalists and synthesizers who design in complexity,” said Connie Migliazza, ASLA, WRT San Francisco. The skill set of the landscape architect is perfectly suited to agriculture: they are trained to understand both the human and large scales, grading and drainage, and the importance of cultural interpretation of the land. They can manipulate the land for better use and provide “tactical interventions that can improve biodiversity and water usage.”
Unfortunately, said Migliazza, the profession sees agriculture in a dichotomy of scales – either the small scale of raised-bed urban agriculture, or large-scale industrial operations. Between the two scales, “there is an opportunity to intervene.”
Farmer and rancher Kelly Mulville at Paicines Ranch agreed, urging action to improve agricultural systems. “This country’s biggest export is top soil,” which is washed away from farms at an alarming rate each year. Unless something changes, said Mulville, “we probably only have 60 years of top soil left.” Plus, climate change is only worsening the overall situation.
Mulville has put landscape architects’ tool box to use in his work at vineyards and ranches — bio-dynamic thinking, plants for pollinators, systems to improve water penetration in soils – but he’s doing so without design.
On Paicinces Ranch, Mulville adopted an approach of “ecosystem mimicry,” which involves diversifying crops, adding cattle for grazing, and using sheep to handle the suckers on the vines and weeding between the rows. The system is deceptively easy: “sheep plus sun,” he joked.
However, the results are nothing to laugh at: there has been a 90 percent reduction in irrigation, a 1,260 pound per year increase in yields, and a $450 per year savings per acre.
Mulville challenged landscape architects to engage in agricultural projects with “principle-based holistic design.” Landscape architects and designers can “design for management, ecosystem mimicry, beauty, economic and social factors, and quality of life.” The designed beauty of our agricultural lands — as well as the joy that comes from growing and producing food in such a setting — can help prevent agricultural lands from being industrialized.
Just as design can stabilize agriculture, agriculture can be used to stabilize the edge of our urban areas. Sibella Kraus, with SAGE: Sustainable Agriculture Education, invited landscape architects and designers to promote the idea of “new ruralism.” Rather than letting the edges of our cities sprawl out into suburbia, gobbling agricultural lands through development, new ruralism is intentional, multi-value agriculture at the urban edge.
Kraus used Coyote Valley outside of San Jose, California, as a case study. Located in the Santa Clara Valley, and originally one of California’s best producers of fruit, Coyote Valley had been “declared dead,” and was slated for a new housing development as the city spread outwards.
Not wanting to lose the Valley to development and believing in the stabilizing good of agriculture, SAGE researched the area and discovered where the land could be farmed and the appropriate size and scale of croplands that could be added. The study called for the “revitalization of specialty crop agriculture” and found the region would gain $1.6 – $3.9 billion per year in tourism, a sustainable and permanent local agriculture, and the conservation of land.
The question is: how do you monetize these plans? Here, again, a call for the landscape architect. Kraus echoed Mulville in the need for beauty and design to save our agricultural lands. “What we need is a designed plan for the Valley.” Landscape architects could present an “in-depth assessment.”
As Mulville said, farmers have on-the-ground knowledge, but “what they are missing is design.” Farming done well, much like landscape architecture, is a genius melding of art, science, and place. The opportunities for designers are abundant.
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Why Underpass Park?
ASLA selected Underpass Park because it won the ASLA 2016 Professional Award of Excellence. Less than 1 percent of all award submissions receive this honor.
Our esteemed jury, made up of leaders in the field, described Underpass Park this way: “A terrific project. It’s wonderful to see a solution where you embrace the marginalized groups and design a space that doesn’t displace them, but creates an environment for them. All the right tools were used in a creative and dynamic way to create an energetic space that kids love.”
The award also highlights Underpass Park because it’s a prominent example of reusing abandoned, derelict space. These spaces litter cities and represent so much untapped potential. Toronto shows the way forward for the rest of the world’s cities. This award says that even underpasses can become great parks. It’s my hope that other cities will follow suit. New York City, Miami, and other cities are now looking at their underpasses now, too.
Why Virtual Reality?
We are increasingly in an image and video-driven world. With video, you can pack in even more information about a work of landscape architecture, much more than you can in simply a photo or text. With video, you can get a sense of the sight, sound, and “feel” of a place. You can see people interacting with the design, bringing it to life. Virtual reality takes video to the next level: as you move your phone or VR headset, you control your experience in the landscape. It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person. In part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.
Why did ASLA make this VR film?
We are always looking for more effective ways to promote the value of landscape architecture to society. Virtual reality has proven to be a powerful tool for explaining how the places people love – like Underpass Park – are designed experiences. Virtual reality allows us to educate the public about landscape design in a more compelling way.
We have multiple goals with the video: We hope to use the video to promote the potential of virtual reality among the landscape architecture community, which totals approximately 25,000 design professionals in the U.S. and Canada. We also hope to use the video to explain the incredible value of landscape architecture to the public, and the ability of landscape architects to turn an unloved place like an underpass into a beloved community park.
We also hope community groups or local advocates can make use of it for their own goals. For example, when we were filming the video, we met a family visiting from Buffalo, New York. The mother of the child who was skateboarding there said it was a “no brainer to put a skatepark under an underpass.” She immediately got that the space was accessible when it’s raining or snowing because it’s covered. Ideally, this video will become a tool for her to promote the idea of an Underpass Park in Buffalo. We hope it can become an advocacy tool.
Why should landscape architects use VR?
Virtual Reality is a powerful tool for landscape architects, architects, planners, and developers – really anyone involved in designing our built and natural environments. In the example of Underpass Park: many will never have the opportunity to visit the park in person, but with our video, they can get a good sense of what’s it like to be there.
For landscape architecture firms, this is an excellent way to really show clients that a place they’ve designed works – that people enjoy hanging out there, that kids love playing there, that people are drawn to events there.
ASLA VR Film Credits
Producer: American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Production Company: DimensionGate, Toronto
Director: Ian Tuason
Director of Photography: Jon Riera
Narrator: Greg Smallenberg, FASLA, principal, PFS Studio
Camera Assistant: Mark Valino
Post Production: Connor Illsley
Skateboarders: Cris Fonseca and Dan Everson
Thinking the Contemporary Landscape, a new collection of essays edited by EHTZ professors Chistophe Girot and Dora Imhof takes on the considerable task of creating a unified understanding of landscape. The essays’ takeaways don’t quite paint as cohesive a picture as the editors suggest. But if the rational and the poetic in landscape are to be reconciled, as the editors insist they must be, this scattershot approach seems as good as any.
Several of the essays deal with the critical issue of place, and how design might enhance rather than obscure it. Girot, in his essay, points to the trend of homogenized ecological design as a missed opportunity to enter a dialogue with the local context. An increased reliance on 2D mapping techniques is to blame for this, Girot argues. An alternative? 3D, of course. Girot is an effective pitchman for the point cloud and the specificity it allows designers to access. Still, it seems too convenient to blame out-of-the-box designs on one set of tools or methods. Girot himself describes these ecological designs as a trend. And as trends are by nature fleeting, perhaps the fear of homogenization has outgrown its actual threat.
In her essay, Allesandre Ponte at the University of Montreal suggests the mapping craze Girot refers to might be a sign of insecurity on the part of designers who find themselves groping around a dark and ever-expanding room of ecology, territory, and culture. The multitude of ways designers can approach sites could come as a relief to some but also induce further “paralysis by analysis” in others.
A meditation by Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, on model-making weaves together interesting personal anecdotes to make a valid criticism of 3D technologies. Rhino and Grasshopper are a necessity but don’t confer good landscape sense. One trusts Gustafson writes from experience when she shares that a designer cannot explore a landscape with just a keyboard and mouse. “Where are you?” Gustafson prods. “What are you truly experiencing? This is the only thing, for me, that really matters.”
It’s possible to get the impression from some contemporary landscape architects that the greatest transgression a designer can make is neglecting aesthetics in the pursuit of ecological function. Reading of people drowning in the streets of Beijing due to urban flooding, one can forgive Kongjian Yu, FASLA, this offense in his deployment of urban sponges. “Healing the ecological system at the national scale needs simple, replicable, and inexpensive solutions, not self-indulgent ornamental design or artistic form,” writes Yu. Of course, Turenscape’s Qunli Stormwater Park is staggering in its messy functionality. Yu shares its origins as well as the genesis of Turenscape in one of the book’s more personable essays. It’s organized as a guide, with steps such as “Do not Try to Influence the Experts,” and “Make a Proposal to the Prime Minister.”
The book’s most successful essays tell stories. Yu’s falls into this category, as does Susann Ahn and Regine Keller’s delightful essay on nature and imitation. Conceiving of nature as a construct can be extremely liberating. But what happens when that conception runs up against cultural expectation? Designers buckle and imitative natures get built. “The question remains whether, and when, the imitation will render the original meaningless.”