An Interview with David Kamp, FASLA: The Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden

by Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden
Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden. A spacious curved trellis serves as a welcoming transition from the elementary school to the garden. The adjacent activity space, an oval “lawn” of resilient paving, features a variety of fixed and movable seating choices. / image: Robin Hill (c)

An Interview with David Kamp, FASLA, LF, NA, Founding Partner of Dirtworks Landscape Architecture, PC

The Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) is honored to share the second part of my interview with David Kamp, FASLA, whose influential work is held in the highest esteem in the design, planning, and environmental psychology community. (Please see the first installment, covering what shaped David’s design philosophy, here.)

Representative Projects

Your portfolio of projects is amazing. Could you share your thoughts about several that provided you the foundation to design the Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden?

I realize that much of what I have shared with you deals with health. Building health through a stronger connection with nature, which strengthens connections to ourselves, our communities, and the larger world, is the foundation to all our projects. That includes our work with children—whether it is designing a universal access trail system for an environmental education center, dealing with the trauma of neo-natal intensive care for parents and well siblings, a public garden that engages everyone regardless of age or condition, or an international campus that welcomes children from a dozen different cultures. All of these perspectives deal with celebrating the wonder and delight of nature and using that resonating “connectiveness” to open up new worlds for kids to explore. Receiving the commission for the Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden, we had a rich and nuanced perspective to draw upon for the collaboration.

A nook, nestled within plantings and encircled by a distinctive paving band, contains a playful composition of seats and a table for focused activities. Strategic plant compositions provide teachers with privacy while maintaining clear views across the garden. / image: Robin Hill (c)

Tell us about the Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden.

The project was, in many respects, one of the most rewarding collaborations of my career. We came to the interview with a series of considerations crafted into a basic design framework. These considerations formed the “bones” of the garden design—the overall structure, main characteristics, and features—to begin a collaborative effort to advance the basic design. From day one, it was a deeply engaging dialogue with you, as an occupational therapist, educator, and researcher, and with Marlene Sotelo, a music therapist, special educator, and the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the Els for Autism Foundation. This three-perspective approach was further enriched by engaging the staff—teachers, therapists, maintenance personnel, and others at the Els Center of Excellence—as the design advanced.

As you know, the process involved some intense work sessions throughout the design process. Early on it was important to establish a basic understanding of the overall project goals and how the “big design gestures” reflected these goals. This understanding formed the foundation for exploring the design in more detail: How wide is the main pathway? Could we see how it feels a little wider? And narrower? How can we add a sense of mystery (while supporting confidence and security) to the little pathways into our hidden gardens? Can we create a sense of privacy while still maintaining sight lines across the garden? Will the size and configuration of the sensory rooms feel comfortable for one child as well as several? How will the height of different tree canopies and varying qualities of sun and shade help articulate distinct spaces? What will the children walk on here? What will they touch/see/hear/smell here? Can we create a sense of privacy while maintaining sight lines across the garden?

The level of sensitivity applied to every space and every detail was invigorating. I will forever hold fondly a memory of you sitting in a huge pile of pebbles at a stone quarry carefully selecting stones with just the right smoothness, curvature, and shape for our special pebble paving. It was that level of attention, open dialog, and respect across the entire design team that made for such an enjoyable process—and a successful project.

Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden. Concentrating sensory-rich plantings into clearly defined, distinct settings helps balance a range of alerting and calming experiences across the garden, allaying stress and anxiety while offering the opportunity to gently elevate the senses. / image: Robin Hill (c)

Future Direction

I understand you have a book coming out soon. Could you tell me about it?

The Library of American Landscape History invited me to write a book about my life and career. I was deeply honored by this invitation. As I began to write, I realized we rarely give ourselves the time to pause and consider the course of one’s professional (and personal) trajectory.

The first part of the book will include growing up in the foothills of North Carolina, my education at the University of Virginia, and on to Parliament House and starting Dirtworks. I will also share some influential experiences and colleagues that enriched my perspective along the way. Receiving a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design offered a year of research into the broadest concepts of health, including medical and environmental ethics, health and human rights, ergonomics, environmental psychology, and psychoneuroimmunology. Immediately after the Loeb I was offered an Artist’s Residency at the MacDowell Colony, the country’s oldest artist colony. This proved to be the perfect antidote to Harvard’s intellectual intensity. The residency offered quiet solitude to pause, digest all that Harvard had offered, and set a course for the future. Immersed in such an encouraging setting with a range of artists, it was a unique opportunity to share the common threads of creativity.

In the second part of the book, I will share a variety of projects that extend from design responses to individual health needs to larger environmental health concerns. Collectively they express my belief that the designed environment can be instrumental in promoting health; both in helping individuals cope with ill health and in shaping individual choices that promote health. This attitude about design transcends any one scale. By putting individual human health on a continuum with environmental health, I believe that design can help coalesce individual choices into collective ones to make our communities more vibrant and equitable. Reflecting back on a childhood largely spent outdoors, at the heart of this belief is the concept of biophilia, the intrinsic connection we have with nature.

Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden. Reduced and integrated sensory spaces, called a “place away,” provide refuge for those experiencing hypersensitivity or requiring respite. One features a water wall. A teacher observed, “It is a wonderful sensory activity—peaceful, calming, and unifying, drawing the kids in.” / image: Robin Hill (c)

What happens next?

Dirtworks has some marvelous projects underway that continue to expand our ideas about health. Of course, COVID-19 will have a major influence on how we think about health and wellbeing within every context of our lives and at every scale. Designing for children within this context is a major interest—and concern—of ours.

Personally, I have always been interested in balancing small-scale considerations with large-scale ones. This probably goes back to my work on the Australian Parliament House. There, the design had to speak to one individual and to the nation. Melding small scale/large scale ideas is essential for design to be effective and inclusive. I have been invited to join the Blue Climate Summit, a gathering of researchers, practitioners, and leaders from around the world addressing climate change through ocean-based innovation. We are looking at breakthrough solutions that will protect and conserve our oceans to tackle the great challenges of our time: renewable energy, sustainable food supplies, clean drinking water, improved human health, flourishing biodiversity, and sustainable ocean economies. This endeavor is based, in essence, on the goal of nurturing that which ultimately nurtures us. It is a global perspective that ultimately returns to the perspective of one individual, perhaps inspiring one child to look confidently into the future.

Earthplace Nature Discovery Center. A series of universal access nature trails welcomes everyone to learn about and experience nature, regardless of capability. / image: Dirtworks, PC

Please see Part 1 of this interview to read about what shaped David’s design philosophy.

David Kamp, FASLA, LF, NA, is the founding principal of Dirtworks Landscape Architecture, PC. His forty-year career involving practice, teaching, writing, and advocacy has been dedicated to promoting health through design with nature. A Harvard Loeb Fellow, MacDowell Colony Fellow, member of the National Academy of Design, and University College Falmouth (UK) Honorary Fellow, David’s work has been internationally recognized through awards, publications, and documentaries. He is working on a book about his life and career, which will be published by the Library of American Landscape History.

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, is is Co-Communications Director for ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN), Principal of design+cOnsulTation, and Lecturer in the occupational therapy program at Boston University. Her work focuses on collaborative design, programming, and research of outdoor environments for underserved groups. A Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Amy presents and publishes widely on topics relating access to nature. She is co-author of the award-winning book Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.

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