Ruminations on the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting

image: Bob Oberdorfer
image: Bob Oberdorfer

…In which our two intrepid correspondents wander the shadowy conference center halls of Chicago on a not-so-blustery autumn weekend to bring you, our faithful readers, these incisive observations from the front lines of the national conclave of landscape architects!  

To that end, Ecology + Restoration PPN Communications Officer Devon Santy and yours truly (that’s me) attended a full slate of educational sessions—in between forays into the local speakeasies and blues clubs, of course. But before I venture further into that synopsis, allow me to digress slightly. As I sat at my paper-strewn desk and pecked out the introductory words you have just read, the first term that came to mind for our recent gathering was not “conclave,” but rather “confab.” Not wanting to alienate any aspiring etymologists in the crowd, though, I decided I’d better consult Messrs. Merriam and Webster to verify the applicability of the term. My gut feeling was right: “confab” refers to an intimate, informal, private conversation, which does not technically apply to the largest gathering of landscape architects in the world.

However, another “con-” word that popped up alongside was “confabulation,” which offered intriguing possibilities for various metaphors that could be applied to the situation at hand. It seems “confabulation” implies a form of mental manipulation, defined as the product of “distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intent to deceive” (with additional thanks to Messrs. Wiki and Pedia for that particular interpretation of the word).

At the risk of sounding as harsh as the glare of the fluorescent lights above my desk, some of the sessions that I attended seemed to be more confabulation than contribution to the collective knowledge base of the profession. What I had hoped for was insightful guidance to apply to the pile of projects that awaited me back at the office—new and exciting applications of cutting edge concepts that would enable me to single-handedly fend off complacency and tediousness in the old day-to-day routine. What I got was more flash and less substance.

However, two sessions I attended stood out as bucking that trend. Fairly late in the program, Monday’s session, Assessing the Results of Sustainable Strategies 10 to 30 Years Later, brought together a number of icons in the landscape architecture arena who presented projects that they completed 10, 20, and even 30 years earlier—and lived to tell about them. What’s more, they actually discussed what had worked well, what didn’t work so well, how they overcame some of the challenges they had faced, and what they might have done differently if they’d had the benefit of their current hindsight. This was a refreshing departure from the more common approach in the broader landscape architectural community that sometimes seems to value eye appeal over substance and longevity.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t shy away from a compelling hardscape, and I’ll admit I occasionally like to take a peek at the seductive curve of a nicely trimmed espalier, but on the whole I’d like to think that we E+R PPN practitioners want people to appreciate our work for what it can accomplish, rather than merely being seen as eye candy on the cover of Landscape Architecture Magazine. Nonetheless, it was gratifying to hear the perspectives of these venerable practitioners and realize that they, too, suffer the same setbacks, scope changes, and second-guessing that the rest of us do. Added bonus: I learned that Joe Brown’s new favorite book is The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong, by Judith Rodin.

image: Devon Santy
image: Devon Santy

Maybe they were saving the best for last. Another breath of fresh air came in the form of another Monday session, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for More Resilient Landscapes. This session began by positing that despite best intentions to the contrary, many landscape architects do not understand how to design with native plants. More often than not, designers tend to merely substitute native or drought-tolerant species for the more traditional non-native specimen plants they have designed with for years, but without changing the way those plants relate to each other. The result is often a collection of uniformly-spaced, scruffy-looking plants in a sea of gravel or other mulch, which (unless you happen to live in the Sonoran Desert) is anything but natural or sustainable.

Instead, presenters Thomas Rainer and Claudia West suggested we should start designing our planting plans as plant communities. Start by asking the question, “What kind of habitat does your site want to be?” The key to developing natural-looking planting plans, they assert, lies in vertical layering rather than horizontal spacing. Through this approach, they presented an interesting case that in a properly designed planting plan, mulch is not only unnecessary, but in some cases detrimental. As luck would have it, their approach is presented in a new book with a name that eerily echoed the title of the session, which quickly earned a spot on my reading list!

Many sessions emphasized a seemingly new approach that involved “collaborative design.” Several presenters noted that collaboration with other disciplines is becoming a requirement for successful landscape architect-led environmental restoration projects. While we can applaud this latent realization, it turns out that in this regard landscape architects are somewhat late to the party.

To wit, a matter of weeks after the ASLA Annual Meeting & EXPO, I attended the Society for Ecological Restoration’s 2015 Southwest Regional Conference in Tucson, AZ, where I noted that almost every presenter identified an extensive supporting collaborative team—almost none of which included landscape architects. Turns out ecologists have been doing the collaboration thing for years. They just never thought to invite us.

As our hero pondered the lack of quid-pro-quo in that last paragraph, the door opened, ushering in a gust of cold wind, along with Devon Santy. Devon picks up the story from here…

After following several false leads through McCormick Place, the labyrinthine waterfront complex that hosted the Annual Meeting, I finally stumbled into Friday’s session, Five Essentials to Riparian + Wetland Restoration Success more than half way through. I like to think I am a “glass-half-full” kinda guy, so despite missing most of the session I did my best to open my ears and glean some pointers for restoration success. Lisa Cowan, ASLA, addressed microtopography, reminding the audience that evenly sloped grades and perfectly flat wetland surfaces just don’t occur in nature. Microtopography, she asserted, is essential to enhancing biodiversity in riparian and wetland environments, so restoration projects should include it as well.

The presenters also offered a couple of other practical pointers, such as: don’t accept bids from strangers—or at least contractors who don’t show up to pre-bid meetings. And make important project details known from the beginning so contractors will know what they’re bidding on. Valuable advice for projects of any type, not just restoration projects.

image: Devon Santy
image: Devon Santy

Later that morning, I saw a moderated panel discussion billed as Designed Ecologies: An Interdisciplinary Discussion. That’s right—more collaborative stuff. The conversation addressed the challenges and strategies of incorporating ecology into landscape designs, with a special focus on urban sites that seem to have little or no existing ecological function. As the moniker suggested, the panel agreed that multidisciplinary collaboration is critical to a successful restoration project. Ecologists, they explained, ought to be invited to the table from the moment ecological goals or an ecological agenda is conceived for a project. After all, as Bob mentioned earlier, they’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time.

In response to questions posed after the presentation, the panel offered suggestions on how to deal with complicated and/or antiquated regulations affecting ecological restoration projects (seek variances/conditional permits, and hope that the appropriate authorities will eventually realize the error of their ways), as well as minimizing conflicts between human use and environmental rehab projects (early community engagement followed by ongoing stewardship opportunities). As an important caveat, the panel cautioned practitioners against over-programming restoration projects—in other words, it could be detrimental to the ecological success of the project to have people wandering around every inch of the site.

And while not specifically aimed at ecology and restoration, Artful Rainwater Design: Background, Big Ideas, and What’s Next showcased projects that highlight the critical role of rainwater as a natural resource. The big take-away from this session was that rainwater should be celebrated by artfully calling attention to its importance in the landscape, perhaps offering interactive or interpretive opportunities for otherwise passive observers. In short, the presenters summed it thus: “Make the landscape overtly celebrate rain.” If that wasn’t enough, they encouraged us to learn more by visiting

Looking back on the ecology and restoration related sessions we attended, it struck us that the truism is correct: nobody has all the answers. But we don’t need to do it by ourselves. Collectively—indeed, collaboratively—we can make progress, however incrementally, toward the ultimate goal of correcting some of the ills that have been wrought upon our natural surroundings. “Here’s lookin’ at you, kids.”

(Authors’ notes: For additional information from all education sessions at this year’s meeting, check out the 2015 Annual Meeting Handouts. And the preceding article is best served chilled, in a smoky, dimly lit corner of the local pub, with a glass of scotch and your best Humphrey Bogart impression. Just sayin’…)

by Bob Oberdorfer, ASLA, Ecology + Restoration PPN Co-Chair and Devon Santy, Associate ASLA, Ecology + Restoration PPN Officer

2 thoughts on “Ruminations on the ASLA 2015 Annual Meeting

  1. Deirdre E Toner January 12, 2016 / 9:14 am

    Your definition of “Confab” is spot on. Every year there seems to be too much centered on the ‘big’ firms or Urban Planning LA’s vs. the balance of the membership. My area is Residential and the sessions feathered to my discipline were very good…..just wish they were repeated so I could attend all!

  2. CeCe Haydock January 12, 2016 / 10:42 am

    Brilliant! One of the best Field posts I have read. Bob strikes a nerve about the narrow feel of the annual meeting: what about the “rest” of us?! And yet he and Devon features some of the best talks and what they have gleaned. And ruminations about collaboration, so essential to all of our work. Bob, you clearly have a knack for writing….keep up all the great work, entertaining us at the same time. Thanks to you, Devon, for your fine comments.

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