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Landscape Performance in Design Education: UW's Sustainable Urban Landscapes Seminar

by Nancy Rottle, 2011 LAF Research Fellow | Associate Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington | Director, Green Futures Research and Design Lab

How is landscape performance best incorporated into the LA curriculum? How might LAF’s Landscape Performance Series (LPS) contribute to landscape architecture education and the future practice of our current students?

These are questions that underlay incorporation of the LPS and Case Study Investigation (CSI) model into the graduate curriculum at the University of Washington during the 2011 autumn term. Collaborating with LAF, my Landscape Performance seminar tackled the production of a dozen case studies for projects that ranged from parks to schools to zoo exhibits, in the Pacific Northwest and in China.

The case study work replaced the usual term paper for my Sustainable Urban Landscapes course, which has focused on landscape performance for the last two years. The seminar readings and discussions examine concepts and practices related to the design of sustainable urban landscapes, engaging such theories as green infrastructure, green and sustainable urbanism, landscape urbanism, regenerative and closed-loop design and landscape metrics. The twist of working within the CSI collaborative model immersed students into a more interactive approach to studying performing landscapes.

fallcsi-class

Preparation for the class began over the summer, as LAF Research Assistant Pam Emerson and I met with several firms to identify and vet candidate projects for case studies. A primary qualification was the existence of performance data to adequately quantify benefits of a built project. We narrowed our list of applicable projects to the most promising, and collected as much data in advance as the firms could supply. Pam also learned the processes, resources, and issues the students would face by developing two case studies of her own.

During the autumn seminar, students worked in pairs, assisting one another in gathering data and learning the various landscape evaluation tools. They received regular feedback from me, our Teaching Assistant Delia Lacson (also a LAF Research Assistant), from each other, and from LAF. An invited guest panel of experts described various tools, resources and metrics systems, including Mithun/LBJ Wildflower Center’s carbon calculator, valuation of ecosystem services from Earth Economics, components in the i-tree suite, Seattle parks maintenance data, and Sustainable Sites program resources, especially those related to human health and well-being. The case studies went through three phases of review, including a penultimate review by the sponsoring design firm, before students submitted their final versions to LAF.

Our learning from tackling these case studies underscored, yet transcended, student awareness of the value of incorporating landscape performance goals in the design process. Students in the seminar expressed that it was valuable to learn about the tools and parameters used to design and evaluate high-performing landscapes, to gain in-depth knowledge about a particular designed landscape and its actual benefits, and to learn lessons not only from successes but also from the failures that are unfortunately so common in built landscapes (such as from soil compaction or introduction of weed seeds). The process was also a first-hand lesson in how critical it is to have adequate baseline data and inside knowledge from those involved in the design process.

Measuring and documenting the performance of landscapes is required to reshape the teaching and practice of landscape architecture so that our built landscapes actually provide the desired benefits we hope to achieve. Such measurement and communication are critical to the acceptance and culture of new landscape aesthetics, within the profession and in value formation and demands from our public and private clients. We found the pilot of this model, though still evolving, to be a critical first step in introducing students to this discussion.

LAF appreciates the dedicated work of all those involved with the 2011 UW LARCH 561 course: 2011 LAF Research Fellow Nancy Rottle, Research Assistants Pam Emerson and Delia Lacson, Ximena Bustamante, Sue Costa, Peter Cromwell, Dafer Haddadin , Chen Hai, Taj Hanson, Manami Iwamija, Jo Ming Lau, Audrey Maloney, Jessica Michalak, Haruna Nemoto, Roma Shah, Karin Strelioff, Tao Xu, Xiaobing Wang, Virginia Werner, Ying-Ju Yeh.

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