Dispatches from the Planting Design PPN

The Meadow at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, designed by Richard Haag, Thomas Church, Koichi Kawana, Fujitaro Kubota, and Iain Robertson, in 2019. / image: David Hopman, ASLA, PLA

Amidst gradual reopening in parts on the world, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect nearly every aspect of life, from personal interactions to business to learning to recreation. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is sharing insights, observations, and impressions from ASLA members based around the country here on The Field. In recent weeks, we’ve shared updates and resources curated by the Community Design, Historic Preservation, and Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Networks’ leadership teams. Today, we share dispatches from the Planting Design PPN team:

  • Mark Dennis, ASLA – Washington, D.C.
  • Anne Spafford, ASLA, MLA – Raleigh, North Carolina
  • David Hopman, ASLA, PLA – Arlington, Texas

Mark Dennis, ASLA
Senior Landscape Architect, Knot Design
Washington, D.C.

Like all work-at-home, school-at-home, everything-at-home families these days, our own needs for outdoor connections are more persistent and unyielding than ever. We are here in Capitol Hill just a few doors down from Lincoln Park, a key element of the L’Enfant plan and among the oldest parks in Washington. The surging activity at Lincoln Park during the pandemic provides proof of just how crucial even the most fundamental aspects of amenity planning are in our society, while simultaneously highlighting the profound, persistent lack of funding for preservation and maintenance.

Our rowhouse is typical of the neighborhood and its era, with a tiny square of garden-style yard fenced in wrought iron, along a wide brick sidewalk beneath aging street trees. Reviving this micro “yarden” had been an abiding vision of ours, but our recent, rapid undertaking of a courtyard-style seating area set among the plantings stemmed directly from the shutdown induced by the SARS CoV-2 outbreak.

The results of that project have been gratifying, if only as a means for reconnecting on multiple planes: with neighbors, with street life and passersby, and with urban ecology at a personal, localized scale. The good vibes of this venture have rippled to a follow-on project of refurbishing our rear patio-deck which, in contrast, is even more quaint in scale and completely limited in terms of outward visibility due to its high fence. This has focalized our relationship to this outdoor room as an almost purely vertical experience of nature: sun, sky, trees, and birds.

The power that circumstances beyond our control can have in spurring us to re-evaluate our experience of and relationship to nature, even in our most mundane and familiar places—of how adversity can push us to seek new light through old windows—is profound in its sweep and universality. As a designer (and aren’t we all?), this quality remains for me one of the most enduring mysteries of the human experience of space and place.

Anne Spafford, ASLA, MLA
Associate Professor, North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC

The only redeeming quality of COVID-19 is that it happened as spring emerged here in North Carolina. As a professor who had to quickly convert my classes to an online format and teach from home, I have never been more thankful for my garden.

My landscape became my haven—it helped me divide up my workday. Instead of spending 12 hours straight in front of my computer, every few hours I would go outside, take a stroll around the garden excitedly observing iris blooms developing, the appearance of pollinators, and revel in pulling a few weeds. “Revel” might seem like a stretch, but it’s definitely the correct word. In this crazy, upturned world, the gratification of my fingers seeking out the base of Carolina geranium and pulling up the whole plant is significant. As I weed, my anxiety lessens, and the activity quickly becomes physical meditation. This has become a saving grace to break up my workday.

My front yard provides stress relief, produce, and safe social interaction. / image: Anne Spafford

My landscape also facilitates greatly needed social interaction. If I am out working in my garden or sitting on my porch working on my laptop, passersby will always stop to comment on the garden or ask garden-related questions. When my strawberry plants exploded with fruit last month, there were plenty for my neighbors, my postal carrier, myself, and the birds. Not only does my garden provide me with a succession of produce, it gives me great joy in sharing with others.

Now, more than ever, I am convinced the green industry has done the world a disservice by promoting “low maintenance” landscapes so vigorously. In the past few months my landscape has provided me physical exercise, opportunities to de-stress and lower my anxiety, and a way to connect with others…at a safe distance, of course.

David Hopman, ASLA, PLA
Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, The University of Texas at Arlington
Arlington, TX

Mark Dennis and Anne Spafford have very eloquently and convincingly described the value of plants in both public and personal spaces here as we face the challenges of confronting the dual plagues of racism and COVID-19, and the lived reality of forced isolation and virtual engagement. Perhaps this is also a time to deeply consider the impact of our design decisions on our neighborhoods and sense of place, the quality of our environment, and the ecological future of our neighborhoods, regions, and the planet.

The Meadow at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, designed by Richard Haag, Thomas Church, Koichi Kawana, Fujitaro Kubota, and Iain Robertson, in 2019. image: David Hopman, ASLA, PLA

Remarkable scenes of reemerging nature in urban areas have surfaced throughout the world as industrial activity and polluting transportation systems have been drastically cut back. We have all seen the images and videos of reappearing mountains and sea life as the air and water clear. Additionally, wildlife not seen in decades is being widely documented as it slowly returns to urban areas. These rapid and noticeable improvements can serve as inspirations for both designers and landowners to help change the practices that created the degraded pre-COVID conditions. Striving to maintain this improvement is a positive step that we can take as landscape architects to create an environment that will help people overcome the multiple stressors we are all enduring now. Elevating plants in our design thinking is more important than ever for their value to both people and to the other millions of lifeforms with whom we share the environment.

As we struggle to overcome the multiple afflictions of racism and the pandemic, let’s renew our efforts to produce landscapes that will help heal both people and the land. Let’s focus on native plants for their contributions to a sense of place, their small environmental footprint, and for their complex, surprising, and “unknowable” interrelationships with ecological systems. Let’s rethink our addictions to chemical fertilizers and other chemicals that degrade soil, terrestrial, and aquatic food webs—chemicals that have poorly-researched impacts on human health, and are often unnecessary or even counterproductive to long-term plant health. Let’s also improve our skill at designing with plants for their beauty and sensuous appeal, and for the improvements to environmental quality that they contribute to outdoor spaces for the enjoyment of all people.

Finally, let’s take something positive away from the unprecedented health, economic, and social challenges we face today by working towards making the current improvement in habitat for both humanity and other living things a “new normal” that is a positive reflection of us as landscape architecture professionals.

See ASLA’s COVID-19 Resources page for more information; this page will be continuously updated with new resources as they become available.

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