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BY CAROL E. BECKER

Building the supply chain for native landscapes.

Building the supply chain for native landscapes.

From the May 2015 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

The oak is our national tree for a reason. Oaks are endemic to our native landscapes in all regions of the United States, easily identified by their leaf shape and gnarly branches. The size of the mature white oak (Quercus alba), spreading up to 120 feet, is one reason we associate oaks with strength, along with the density of the wood and an oak fire’s burning hot and long in the woodstove. Native oaks fall into two taxonomic groups, white and red, and their landscape uses vary depending on soil moisture. But most important today, as Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, points out, oaks are the “quintessential wildlife plants.” They provide food to more than 500 species of caterpillars and other insects. In this fact lies the oaks’ value to the entire food chain, from the birds that eat insects to the humans who rest in the trees’ shade.

We need more oaks in our landscapes, mostly for the food benefits they provide. But instead of being sought-after plants, oaks are underused, undermarketed, undercultivated, and therefore in short supply. Landscape architects don’t often use them, clients don’t ask for them, and thus growers don’t grow them. A reverse scenario also holds true. Few nurseries grow Quercus species, particularly Q. macrocarpa, Q. muehlenbergii, and Q. alba, because they are hard to grow and suffer significant transplant death. So clients don’t see them and don’t ask for them and, in turn, landscape architects don’t specify them. Whatever the reason and wherever you start, it’s a circle of mutually reinforcing supply and demand.

The oaks are but one example of the larger problem for design professionals working to create sustainable landscapes with hardy plants in a given region. The interest in doing so—the imperative of doing so—is unequaled by the supply of appropriate species. This shortage also helps perpetuate clients’ expectations of plant specimens they do in fact see at the retail level, plants that are well-shaped, blooming, varied, and maybe even a bit exotic. The landscape architecture profession has taught them to value this aesthetic at least since the mid-19th century, when Andrew Jackson Downing codified ornamental landscaping in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. Now, we find ourselves in a world where, in just the past 40 years, half the songbird species in the United States and more than 90 percent of the monarch butterflies have disappeared. Honeybees and bumblebees have fallen to a mysterious virus, a cataclysmic problem that threatens the entire food chain. We do know how to reverse these trends and preserve biodiversity in landscapes, but we can’t get it done because clients still want constantly blooming and well-shaped plants with no bugs.

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Washington Park, one of two sites being offered by the University of Chicago for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum. Credit:

Washington Park, one of two sites being offered by the University of Chicago for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum. Credit: Photo © Lucas Blair, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

To the annals of things you thought might be sacred but actually aren’t sacred at all, you can now add 20 or so acres of a Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux park in Chicago that will be used to build the Obama presidential library. The Barack Obama Foundation, which had been considering four sites in Chicago, New York, and Hawaii, announced on May 12 that it had narrowed its choices down to a site in either Jackson Park or Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side. Neither the foundation nor the University of Chicago, which lured the library with the promise of using public parkland after a transfer engineered by Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, knows which Olmsted park they’ll decide on. But they seem sure that, despite dozens of empty acres owned by the city near each of the parks, only a park site will do.

When you consider who’s at work behind the idea, it seems inevitable that one of the Olmsted sites would be the choice. There’s Emanuel, who is a former chief of staff to President Obama and recently won re-election to a second term as mayor. There’s Susan Sher, a former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, who is now an adviser to the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Zimmer, and managed the library bid for the university. There are the commissioners of the Chicago Park District, appointed by Emanuel, who unanimously approved the transfer of the parkland to build the library (except for the president of the park district’s board, Bryan Traubert, who declined to vote because he is married to Obama’s secretary of commerce, Penny Pritzker). And then there are the Illinois legislature and the governor, who, in light of potential legal threats to the library project, quickly approved a bill in April to preemptively block legal challenges to the taking of public parkland to build it.

I might have counted on the huge numbers of Olmsted fundamentalists and preservationists, so conspicuous on other occasions, to emerge in force against the library foundation’s plans. But other than substantive counterarguments made by a couple of advocacy groups—the Friends of the Parks in Chicago and the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington—any opposition to the idea of appropriating parkland for the library was muted to nonexistent, notably among landscape architects. A move to develop part of Central Park or Prospect Park, also by Olmsted and Vaux, in New York, would create something close to panic, as would, I suspect, designs on a Mies van der Rohe building or the Tribune Tower in Chicago.

It’s not possible to know whether there are more people who opposed Chicago’s offering of the park but kept quiet owing to fears of political retribution—no more municipal work for you, grouch—or because they didn’t think it is wrong, or because they thought fighting was futile. Not that one reason is more terribly disappointing than the others. This was a moment (and a long moment since word of the city’s plan came out late last year) to defend something that landscape architects and park advocates say they hold dear.

The ultimate responsibility lies with the president and First Lady themselves. When they announced the decision and ended the charade of keeping their distance from the site selection process, they cited, of course, their deep attachment to the South Side of Chicago. This part of the city makes perfect sense for the Obama library for many reasons. But if the Obamas are so rooted on the South Side, you’d think they wouldn’t be quite so indifferent to the gravity of developing part of its most important park, which, for reasons that don’t require much explanation, is, or was, indeed sacred.

 

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BY JANE ROY BROWN

How designers of Boston’s outdoor classrooms arrived at a “Kit of Parts” that really works.

How designers of Boston’s outdoor classrooms arrived at a “kit of parts” that really works.

From the May 2015 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

 “Ms. Thompson, what’s a log?” The question came from a kindergartener in a Boston elementary school in 2006, after his teacher (not her real name) read a story to the class about a possum hiding in a hollow log.

As shocking as the question may sound, teachers all over the country have fielded similar ones for years. By 2005, when Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods launched the term “nature-deficit disorder” into everyday use, generations of kids in some city neighborhoods had had no experience of woods, never mind logs.

Last Child in the Woods has sent all kinds of communities scrambling to offer some experience of nature to their children, and many of them have focused, logically enough, on schoolyards. As more landscape architects join the push to transform crumbling asphalt schoolyards into landscapes for play and learning, they might do worse than to take a page from the Boston Schoolyard Initiative (BSI).

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In May’s issue of LAM, the current lack of supply of native plant species in the United States shortchanges the potential for a more diverse landscape; Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, leads a team at City College of New York to combine landscape architecture, climate science, and urban planning for better coastal resilience; and in Japan, Studio on Site’s persistence for the use of trees in its designs reconnects the city with nature.

In the departments, the Boston Schoolyard Initiative helps transform urban schoolyards into learning oases; open expanses in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, designed by space2place and McFarlane Biggar, allow the peaceful coexistence of both homeless and local residential users; and Spurlock Poirier’s benched plans for San Diego have the potential to create a healthy, green network throughout the downtown area. All this plus our regular Now, Species, Goods, and Books columns. The full table of contents for May can be found here.

As always, you can buy this issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine at more than 200 bookstores, including many university stores and independents, as well as at Barnes & Noble. You can also buy single digital issues for only $5.25 at Zinio or order single copies of the print issue from ASLA. Annual subscriptions for LAM are a thrifty $59 for print and $44.25 for digital. Our subscription page has more information on subscription options.

Keep an eye out here on the blog, on the LAM Facebook page, and on our Twitter feed (@landarchmag), as we’ll be ungating May articles as the month rolls out.

Credits: “The Chain of Demand,” Courtesy the Pizzo Group; “The Storm We Don’t Know,” © 2015 Structures of Coastal Resilience, Jamaica Bay Team; “Trees For Tokyo,” Makoto Yoshida/Yoshida Photo Studio; “Just Add Nature,” Christian Phillips Photography; “Every Kinda People,” Courtesy space2place Design; “The Thin Green Lines,” Spurlock Poirier Landscape Architects and Joe Cordelle, Animate Digital Studio.

 

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In 2013, LAM filmed a wide-ranging and very candid conversation between Signe Nielsen, FASLA, and Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, two longtime friends, on New York, urbanism, and landscape architecture practice.

With more than 60 years’ design experience between them, Nielsen and Van Valkenburgh talk about the range of Nielsen’s projects, including Hudson River Park and the South Bronx; lessons from Hurricane Sandy; how to (and how not to) work with developers; the problem of “sustainability” as a trend; Nielsen’s first meeting with Kim Mathews, ASLA, her partner of 20 years at Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects; and learning to take the lead on big urban projects.

For more on Nielsen and the work of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, pick up a copy of the April issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine. The digital issue is free or you can buy the print issue at more than 200 bookstores, including many university stores and independents, as well as at Barnes & Noble. Single digital issues are only $5.25 at Zinio or order single copies of the print issue from ASLA. Annual subscriptions for LAM are a thrifty $59 for print and $44.25 for digital. Our subscription page has more information on subscription options.

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BY KEVAN WILLIAMS

The planting of jatropha could help build the economy of a haitian town.

The planting of Jatropha could help build the economy of a Haitian town.

From the April 2015 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.

When I meet Robinson Fisher at a coffee shop in downtown Athens, Georgia, on a cold and rainy day, he hands me a bar of soap. Fisher and the soap have just arrived from Haiti: specifically, a village called Terrier Rouge, a community of about 20,000 people in the hot, dry, and very poor northeastern part of the country. I first met Fisher, the father of a childhood friend, years ago, and only later learned he’s a landscape architect. He’s had a long career with his firm, Robinson Fisher Associates, practicing in lush, temperate, and developed northeast Georgia. But for the past decade he’s made a lot of trips to Haiti, spending several months each year learning and working with people there on a variety of agricultural experiments. The soap, wrapped in plain paper and stamped with a simple logo, is the latest product of that work.

Underneath the wrapper is a caramel-colored slab, smaller than your average bar of Dove or Irish Spring, and less refined. There is no logo pressed into the surface, or a specially molded form. It is the product of a simple, locally scaled manufacturing operation in Terrier Rouge, which is evident in its packaging and shape. But it lathers and bubbles just like regular soap. Even more remarkable is what the soap is made of: the oil from the seeds of Jatropha curcas, a scrubby tree that grows abundantly in this arid part of Haiti.

Jatropha is native to Central America and the Caribbean, growing between 20 and 30 feet tall. The semievergreen plant sheds its large leaves during periods of drought, to which it is well adapted. The seemingly worthless and weedy plant is also poisonous. “Nobody eats it: Goats won’t eat it, and bugs won’t eat it much, which allows this plant to survive,” Fisher says.

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Find the LAM staff out and about in May:

May 3–7

Lightfair International, New York City

May 8–9

River Cities: Historical and Contemporary, Washington, D.C.

May 14–16

AIA National Convention, Atlanta

May 16–17

International Landscape Architecture Symposium, Beijing Forestry University, Beijing

You can also find Landscape Architecture Magazine this spring at the following shows:

May 3–7

Lightfair International, New York City

May 13–15

HD EXPO, Las Vegas

May 14–16

AIA National Convention, Atlanta

And as always, at more than 400 Barnes & Noble stores.

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