Scholarship in the open air.
Text and photography by Katherine Jenkins
Walking Through the Pandemic
In May 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, my graduate student Megan and I met on opposite sides of a meadow and walked together while remaining physically apart. We followed alternate edges of the field, aware of our bodies in space, keeping our distance but maintaining each other in sight. As if in a slow meandering dance in which the partners never meet, our paths crisscrossed a great divide. Maintaining a healthy separation demanded that we monitor each other’s movements with an acuity rarely exercised in an ordinary stroll. We walked with heightened awareness, present to the asynchronous rise and fall of our bodies as we moved along our separate paths.
Not long thereafter, Megan returned to the meadow, which is located on an urban farm on the Ohio State University campus. Alone on this walk, she was confronted by a campus police officer who questioned the purpose of her visit. When she explained that she was a student of landscape architecture conducting research on walking outdoors, he replied, “I find that very hard to believe,” and instructed her to leave the site. The officer justified his dismissal by claiming that he had received reports of people stealing apples from an adjacent orchard. Megan kindly noted that given that it was early May, some months before any apples would be available for picking, the validity of such a report was questionable. Regrettably, the officer was untroubled by this observation—and by the possibility that he was disrupting scholarly research—and evicted Megan nonetheless.
In this political moment, walking outside was regarded as a transgression. Although she was alone and surrounded by acres of open, unpopulated space, Megan’s presence on public land upset expectations to stay isolated by retreating indoors. But her walk also confronted other social norms that favor vehicular use above alternative modes of transportation—norms that evolved with the diffuse growth of the city of Columbus. Considering the many ways in which Columbus has designed walking out of everyday life, perhaps roaming an agricultural site with no clear destination is truly abnormal behavior.
And yet, spending time outside has never felt more critical than in recent months, when our means of experiencing the world has been more virtual than visceral. With bans on social gathering, it seems that the more we wish to engage with the broader world, the more tethered we become to digital platforms that keep us indoors and inactive. As it pertains to pedagogy, this situation is merely an intensification of a trend toward mediated learning that has already permeated many design schools. Teaching during COVID-19 has highlighted many of the hazards of an increasingly digital design pedagogy.
One of the most problematic aspects of digital design culture is the ease with which it enables students of landscape architecture to make embellished representations of the outdoors from the sensorially impoverished indoors. Ubiquitous access to geographic data and imagery has advantages, but it also makes visiting the landscape feel less urgent. A student with limited time might be persuaded that a site can be adequately explored online. Studying the contours on a map to understand a terrain, however, is very different from experiencing the full pleasure or labor of that terrain by walking. It is through walking outdoors that we expose ourselves to unpredictability and discovery: weather, encounters, fatigue—things that are not mapped or recorded because they have yet to occur.
Design students are frequently told to shift scales to advance a design or make a discovery. This pandemic reinforces the need to shift geographies and walk under new atmospheres.
Walking as Research
Walking is not typically embraced as an educational pursuit. Certainly, to employ walking as a form of academic research or design inquiry strays from typical university models. Undertaking the occasional site visit may be common in design schools, but academic culture dictates that most work will be completed inside the studio. In an effort to introduce my students to an alternative form of scholarship, I have been conducting walking exercises with my classes for several years.
The walks take many forms, but the general methodology looks something like this: My students and I walk a landscape repeatedly, in various seasons and conditions, and record the itinerary of each walk via GPS. Collected over time, the accretion of these paths of movement registers shifts in site phenomena that can be felt but not always seen. For instance, a group of 10 students and I set out to cross an 800-foot-wide cornfield in October 2018. By that time of year the corn had been harvested, and I purposely had us walk against the grain of the field, perpendicular to the long rows still marked by leftover chaff. The itinerary was to spread out and walk as straight a line as possible from one side of the field to the other. While parallel rows of corn spread hundreds of feet to the right and left, the perpendicular rows in front of us wavered with undulations in the terrain.
As the only vertical elements within this 30-acre expanse, students became keenly aware of their classmates’ movements, each attempting to gauge how straight he or she walked by maintaining a consistent distance from their neighbor. Upon mapping these lines of movement via GPS, we made a discovery: All of the lines veered gently to the south, some more than others. None were perfectly straight. Upon revisiting the field, we understood the reason for this southward turn. The field gently, almost imperceptibly, slopes southward, and so all of our bodies, pulled by gravity and eased by the gentle slope, made our way with it. We were all, no doubt, further influenced by our neighbors’ predilection for the easiest route and moved together like a flock in formation.
Through this exercise we recorded relationships: of slope to movement, of body to terrain, of individual to group. I’ve always considered this type of fieldwork and the environmental literacy it engenders to be an integral component of landscape architecture education. But now it assumes a different importance.
Before the spring of 2020, such walking exercises were a way for students to leave the crowded studio and to explore the landscape with their bodies and their senses. Often these walks took on a solitary kind of investigation focused on the relationship between the walker and the terrain. Whether the walk was conducted by a group or individually, it was not a highly social enterprise. Rather, I encouraged my students to use the time outside to reflect on the environment and their position in it. Now, walking outside is one of the few ways to safely be together. And, because we must be newly attuned to a companion’s actions as much as we are to other cues in the environment, the way we move through the landscape has changed. I no longer walk in straight lines down straight sidewalks. Instead, I am constantly weaving around other walkers, veering into the street to avoid a close encounter. I take less direction from the boundaries of the sidewalk and the locations of stop signs and crosswalks than from the positions of others on the street. In short, I have gained a new quality of attention to my surroundings.
This autumn, to develop this awareness and to counterbalance the effects of online education, my students and I will spend as much time as possible on our feet, walking the landscapes where we live. We will prioritize experience over other forms of knowledge, and we will carry out physically engaged learning in a communal space outdoors.
Reading or drawing a digital map is a comfortable exercise. The designer can see and control every known relationship at once. A walker, however, gives up the comfort of a fixed perspective for a constantly shifting orientation. It is through this changing relation to her immediate environment that she makes discoveries and gains experience.
Most of us typically consult a map to ensure that we don’t get lost and that we move efficiently from one point to another. Perhaps most important, we employ a map to go somewhere. But the method of open-air scholarship that I advocate for here leaves behind maps as authoritative doctrines. Here the process of reading a map and making a journey are reversed and, instead, one reads the terrain and makes a map. Of course, before digital technology, this was the cartographic process. What is important now, in a time when every place has already been mapped, is enlivening a walk with a sense of exploration. Plotting a course that responds to environmental phenomena or other actors ensures that there is always a discovery to be made (even in a very banal landscape) or a new route to traverse.
The walker sets out and leaves a digital thread of her journey, constructing the map of her route while experiencing it. Thus, her way of walking is directed not by a preconceived representation of the site, but by the site itself and its specific conditions on the day and hour of the excursion. Thinking, acting, and making become simultaneous, and the detail embedded in the resulting GPS drawing is a direct outcome of the extent of physical exertion and time spent in the landscape. I call this physical cartography.
I never send my students outside to drift aimlessly. I give them a framework or itinerary through which to approach their walk. This frame, however, is not prescriptive. It does not predetermine their experience. I provide guidelines but not a goal or end point, which, naturally, undermines the basic principle of travel (to reach a destination). The only constant for performing a walk is that students pay attention to the ways their walk is shaped by their immediate environment.
One exercise, for example, asks students to trace (on foot) an edge along which two distinct conditions meet. This edge might constitute something highly ephemeral such as the boundary of a shadow cast by a windbreak of trees. Not only will the position of this boundary change from hour to hour or season to season, but experiencing the boundary is as much about its fluctuating temperature as it is about visual stimuli. Similarly, following an edge between paved and unpaved ground, the walker has a choice: Traversing the asphalt surface is easier, requiring less effort than negotiating the uneven, perhaps wet, perhaps overgrown ground. If the walker focuses on pace and fatigue, the boundary divides not only hard from soft and dry from wet, but also two levels of exertion. Walking in this way directs attention to changing environmental stimuli and how they affect our movement.
Since early 2019 I have been growing a site specifically for these walking exercises at Waterman Farm—Ohio State’s laboratory for agronomy and environmental science. It is here that Megan and I convened this spring. In April 2019 I seeded this one-acre, roughly rectangular field with dozens of species of forbs and grasses with the intention of transforming the field into a meadow. Because the surrounding site is agricultural, the meadow grows conspicuously among orthogonal rows of corn and soybeans. I like this juxtaposition for the empirical instruction it offers: two forms of growth, two systems of control, two definitions of productivity. Radically different management regimes have given rise to distinct spatial and ecological structures that my students and I can study through direct experience.
The cornfield is a paradigm of mechanization. Its growth is regularized, anchored by a grid designed to optimize maintenance and harvest. The quality of the field is measured by its uniformity. All herbaceous interlopers are quickly dispatched. The meadow, however, is a tangle of many plant species and the biota that live among them (some invited, many arriving of their own accord). Plants that find conditions agreeable self-seed and drift across the parcel such that the composition of species shifts from year to year. In the meadow, form emerges from interaction. In the cornfield, form is premeditated.
These configurations of color and texture, mass and void, and the mown corridors that cut through them provide an ideal space to study the relationship between plant communities, maintenance, and form. In particular, the meadow is instructive of the ways that land management practices and their derivative ecological patterns direct the way we and other organisms occupy and move through the landscape.
Because I manage the meadow, my students and I can now react to the discoveries made on our walks by physically manipulating the one-acre plot. Walking on public land is extremely useful for honing analytical and observational skills, but the meadow provides a space in which we can respond. This fundamentally changes the implications of our walks. At this test site, walking is used both as a tool of analysis and a tool of design.
The meadow’s dense vegetation in August provides a textured volume that can be carved, divided, and occupied to study principles of openness and enclosure. I can walk across the meadow when its grasses are low and imprint the memory of that movement into the field by mowing its trail. The following spring, evidence of these interventions remains as bands of vigorous growth and distinct combinations of species. As such, the opportunities for new interventions that react to both past design decisions and current conditions are made possible annually.
This incremental approach is distinguished by its ability to integrate new site information into a flexible, constantly shifting design. Like a feedback loop, the meadow can register design changes across seasons that respond to the successes or failures of previous maintenance decisions, paths, and emerging ecological zones. In this way, the practice engenders design that is formed through process, over time; design that emerges from the contact between things; design that is grown rather than manufactured.
Over the summer and fall of 2019, I constructed a series of paths through the meadow that changed seasonally. New paths emerged via mowing, and old paths receded as they grew over and were reabsorbed by the field. Thus, each return visit offered a new experience. The route of these pathways was designed by walking the acre numerous times during the spring of 2019 and recording where these walks aligned. I found a set of commonalities across many unique walks through the site: I usually entered the site from its southeastern corner and exited from the northwest; I often traced one of two small valleys that cross the middle of the field; I always made a loop; I usually left the meadow and walked along the straight edges of its exterior when heading toward home. These tendencies are a result of the direction from which I usually arrived at the site, the microtopography of the field, and the desirable views to the northwest. The variations in my walks were determined by more transitory factors such as how tired I was or how much time I had to spend on the site, and discoveries that led me to new areas of the field such as nesting birds, deer trails, or changes in plant growth.
This summer is the second season of growth, and new wildflowers and prairie grasses that did not germinate last year such as Elymus canadensis, Schizachyrium scoparium, Asclepias syriaca, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium, Echinacea purpurea, Monarda fistulosa, and many others are now emerging. This means that the meadow’s texture, height, and colors are more varied. Instead of crossing the field along its valley, my movements are more convoluted and exploratory, choreographed by swaths of grasses and punctuations of bloom. I am spending more time within the interior of the meadow investigating new plants as they appear, and I find myself circling drifts of Rudbeckia and Sorghastrum in an attempt to trace the extents of their seed dispersal. This is an example of how the changing ecology of the meadow has caused me to change my behavior in it.
What makes walking the meadow a powerful method of producing space is its adaptability. This year, since people can no longer walk side by side, I have mowed a series of semiparallel five-foot-wide paths separated by 10 or more feet of vegetation. These paths do not connect and so will allow my students to walk together while keeping at a safe distance. At the time of mowing in early July, these paths are enclosed by grasses and wildflowers that average three feet high. Walking in this condition enables conversation while discouraging walkers from leaving the path. But in another month, areas of the meadow populated by Sorghastrum nutans, Silphium laciniatum, and Heliopsis helianthoides will reach six to eight feet, screening previously visible connections between paths. I expect that these conditions will change the nature of walking here, perhaps to a kind of hide-and-seek. Students will observe one another disappearing behind partitions of vegetation that will direct their attention toward plant height and density. Measured against these impressive species, the moving body will be rescaled.
In landscape architecture programs, students are expected to produce site plans and sections as part of their coursework. Accordingly, the types of design ideas proposed are those that are easily represented via these conventional drawing types. It would be unusual, for instance, to see a list of tenets or a set of instructions presented as a final project. Developing a facility with orthographic projection is certainly important, but relieving the requirement to produce these drawings in every course makes alternative learning outcomes possible.
Walking exercises, particularly those that return to the same landscape again and again throughout a semester or a year, encourage students to develop an attention to transformation—growth, decay, changes in color and light, and so on. Repeat visits also advocate for continued involvement with a site over time. Through this cultivated intimacy, students exceed the role of spectator and become stewards of the landscape.
Katherine Jenkins is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Ohio State University and a cofounder of the interdisciplinary design/research group Present Practice.