Spring Cutback: A Model for Maintenance

image: Liz Ligon

image: Liz Ligon

“Landscape design is the art that engages with all aspects of a sustainable world: elemental forces, materials, humans and other living beings. Thus it is the responsibility of landscape artists to create the work and develop the aesthetics that will make experiences of a sustainable world highly enjoyable and desirable.”
–Diana Balmori, FASLA, A Landscape Manifesto

In late March, the Friends of the High Line team began its annual “Spring Cutback.” For most perennial gardeners, and especially those who align themselves with the Piet Oudolf “New Perennial” aesthetic, the process of cutting back ornamental grasses and the skeletons of last season’s herbaceous perennials is as much a harbinger of spring as the first bulbs poking through the soil. In New York City this process is no different, as volunteers flock to the High Line to play a part in the preparation of the park’s plantings for another year of glorious, wild exuberance. This community event has quickly become a tradition that many New Yorkers mark on their gardening calendars, and it has particular relevance to landscape architects who are interested in creating well-maintained, long lasting, and luxuriantly planted urban environments.

The most limiting force exerted on planting design is maintenance. A recent ASLA survey of emerging trends for 2015 in residential landscape design emphasized “low maintenance landscapes” as one of the top consumer demands. Landscape architects often justifiably associate complex planting maintenance requirements with increased operational costs and consider it a potential obstacle to the long-term sustainability and viability of the landscapes they design. These constraints have spawned an exciting branch of planting design research in Europe, where pioneering horticultural ecologists like James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett at the University of Sheffield are developing seed mixes and modular planting systems that can be implemented in public spaces to provide an exuberantly diverse aesthetic spectacle with minimal maintenance involved.

These are indeed exciting developments and must continue, but what the High Line Spring Cutback illustrates is that there is another strategy to ensure diverse, ecologically functional and aesthetically engaging plantings thrive in urban public spaces. Rather than propose a planting like those being developed in Europe that thrive on neglect, the High Line’s model requires that the planting designer craft a vegetal environment that is so undeniably beautiful and easy to fall in love with that its life will never be in danger, regardless of economic circumstances.

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Introducing the WILA Interview Series

image: iStock

image: iStock

The Women in Landscape Architecture (WILA) Professional Practice Network‘s focus this year revolves around an interview series developed around being women landscape architects, life/work balance, and the importance of mentors. The WILA PPN’s co-chairs and officers developed the following 17 questions for this interview series, and then sought out willing landscape architects and began the interview process.

The following is a summary of the interview questions and trends or themes from the responses. Over the next few months, WILA will roll out eight in-depth analyses of groups of questions that focus on a particular concept or theme. Our hope is that by sharing these stories, new perspectives will develop on how diverse and unique women landscape architects, life/work balances, and mentors can be and how they influence all of us.

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A Need for Green Schoolyards

One of The Kitchen Community's Learning Gardens image: The Kitchen Community

One of The Kitchen Community’s Learning Gardens
image: The Kitchen Community

Scalability as Driver of Schoolyard Greening Initiatives

Childhood obesity and the widely acknowledged and worrisome trend of urban food deserts are major health concerns facing Los Angeles and other communities today. According to the Mayo Clinic, unhealthy lifestyles marked by poor food choices and inactivity are the leading cause of obesity in children. Latino youths suffer disproportionately from obesity, and Los Angeles contains 4.9 million Hispanics (9% of the nation’s Hispanic population). At the same time, there is a groundswell of professional interest and research in the topics of Children’s Outdoor Environments and provisions for opportunities for organic, spontaneous, natural play. Add to this equation the vast, underused asphalt expanses of typical urban schoolyards, and the problem-solver in each of us begins to see a window of opportunity.

The Kitchen Community (TKC) was founded in 2011 with the goal of connecting children to nutritious food by building Learning Gardens at schools and community centers across the country. TKC was established as the philanthropic arm of The Kitchen restaurants in Boulder, Colorado, and rapidly expanded to Chicago, Los Angeles, and Memphis. TKC has built over 200 Learning Gardens across the country to date.

TKC’s early goals for expansion include build-out to 100 Learning Gardens in each city. This scale will establish a presence that will enable TKC to enter into larger conversations with school district decision-makers and funders about fundamental shifts in policy that will change the way schools influence the physical and emotional health of our youth. Chicago was the first city to reach this goal, reaching scale in just one year within Chicago Public Schools. As the third-largest school district in the nation, this was an incredible milestone that exemplifies the possibilities of reaching scale in other cities. Los Angeles is now nearly midway to reaching scale, with most of those 100 Learning Gardens anticipated to be built on Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schoolyards. LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the country, is demonstrating its support for schoolyard garden projects with a publicly-funded bond that will provide the infrastructure for outdoor learning environments at over 160 schools within the District.

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Net Zero Water & Landscape Architecture

Los Angeles panorama image: Gary Lai

Los Angeles panorama
image: Gary Lai

I just hosted an event where twenty-five people watched a video of a flushing toilet and gave it a standing ovation. Granted, I live near Hollywood in Los Angeles, but this was not a showing of some avant-garde cinema (today’s Hollywood cinema could never be confused with avant-garde; perhaps, if Captain America were flushing the toilet). This was a combined USGBC and Living Building Challenge meeting to figure out how to get to Net Zero Water in LA.

The toilet in question was a composting toilet that uses no water, but a highly evaporative alcohol lubricant to flush the waste into a digester unit in the basement. Gross? Maybe, but we Californians have to come to terms with the inevitable conclusion that our state’s multi-trillion dollar, 100 year-old water infrastructure system transporting Northern California snowpack to Southern California bathrooms will not be enough. California holds 10% of the country’s population, provides 40-60% of the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables, and has a big enough industry and economy to be rated 8th in the world. California will only continue to get more populous, hungrier, and thirstier over time; the flushing composting toilet was not only grand entertainment for us but a hopeful sign that we will be able to solve our water resource problems by being smarter designers.

What does this have to do with landscape architecture, you may ask? Well, we landscape architects and related industries need to be smarter and more careful in the conservation of our water resources.

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Documenting Modernist Landscapes

One of Sunset Magazine's temporary demonstration gardens image: Chris Pattillo

One of Sunset Magazine’s temporary demonstration gardens
image: Chris Pattillo

The theme of the 6th annual Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) Challenge is to document a Modernist Landscape—preferably a site that reflects the unique landscape from the region you live in. Luckily for us Californians, we have much to choose from. Thomas Church, Garrett Eckbo, Lawrence Halprin, Robert Royston and Theodore Osmundson all lived and practiced in the San Francisco Bay Area and created memorable modernist designs. When an email went out announcing the theme of this year’s challenge, one of our HALS Northern California Chapter members responded promptly to alert us that one of Church’s most well known and most visited landscapes is potentially threatened.

If one posed the question, “what one thing has influenced California gardens more than anything?” myriad responses would result. Our varied and generally temperate climate would be one good answer. But upon reflection, I’m certain many would agree that Sunset Magazine has done more to influence how our gardens look, what plants we try, and how creatively we imagine our outdoor living spaces than anything else. Just to prove my point, try Googling Sunset Magazine—78 million hits pop up instantly.

In 1951, magazine owner Larry Lane commissioned local architect Cliff May to design the headquarters building for Sunset Magazine. At the same time, he looked to Thomas Church, the premier local Landscape Architect, to partner with May to design the setting. The result of their collaboration is a powerful representation of idealized California living. Visiting the property, one enters through oversized, wooden double doors into a high-ceilinged and spacious lobby and at the same time into Church’s landscape. Opposite the doors is a glass wall the full length of the lobby, so that upon entering the building one feels they are instantly in the garden.

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If These Walls Could Talk

A well-designed home is oriented according to natural patterns, such as high-velocity air flow. In order to act as a wind-break for the cool winter winds of West Virginia, the WVU Solar Decathlon house included tall grasses around the structure.  image: John Wray, Team WVU / U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

A well-designed home is oriented according to natural patterns, such as high-velocity air flow. In order to act as a wind-break for the cool winter winds of West Virginia, the WVU Solar Decathlon house included tall grasses around the structure.
image: John Wray, Team WVU / U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

During the sixth semester of my undergraduate tenure at West Virginia University, students were presented with the opportunity to earn an academic scholarship by writing a creative essay oriented around the profession of Landscape Architecture and how students and professionals explore the relationship between humans and natural environments. In this specific text that went on to win the scholarship, I focused on how the profession of Landscape Architecture is the catalyst for blurring the lines between the natural and built worlds by looking at the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire and how they influence the design of built structures that work harmoniously with natural patterns.

Both visual and verbal pieces included in this article communicate what academic and extracurricular activities I have been involved with and how they shaped the formation of my essay. Through experience with the 2013 Solar Decathlon sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which “challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive,” I learned valuable sustainable principles of design. Through academic studio work, I have been able to explore these sustainable principles and include them in an array of design projects. My experiences with these international competitions and studio work leads me to believe that landscape architects are at the forefront of creating varying scales of spaces that are designed with nature in mind and with the goal of improving the way people live, work, and play. This essay creatively communicates how I believe a developing landscape architect sees how design works properly with natural systems.

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The Role of Interoception in Play and Recreation

image: Chad Kennedy

image: Chad Kennedy

This year, my kindergarten age son is learning about the five senses. His excitement for learning is nothing short of contagious as he analyzes daily interactions with the world based on which senses he is using. He correctly notices that an interaction with a tablet requires sight and touch and that his morning cereal feast results in taste and touch sensations.

At times, however, he is confused about which sensory system to attribute certain sensations. After an epic living room floor tickle battle he can correctly note that our laughter is attributed to the auditory sense but cannot quite describe the tickling sensation or his need for water. This may be attributed, in part, to a lack of recognition by society and elementary age educational programs that there are additional sensory systems beyond the typical five.

Sensory systems which help us understand our bodies and the environment include the vestibular (balance & pressure), proprioceptive (spatial understanding) and interoceptive (internal organ) sensory systems. These systems are just as real and important as the traditional five, but receive much less attention. As past articles I have written focused on the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, this article will focus specifically on interoception and how it relates to play and recreational environments.

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