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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Landscape and Cultural Identity in a Globalizing World

By Daniel Xu, 2015 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

“Place makes memories cohere in complex ways. People’s experiences of the urban landscape intertwine the sense of place and the politics of space.”
                                                       — Dolores Hayden, Architectural Historian

A long time ago, a classmate of mine told me that he could not visually distinguish the difference between a Chinese, a Korean, and a Japanese person. I laughed and told him that sometimes I could not either, because our differences were not simply in our appearances, but in our minds and ideologies, which were influenced by the native culture we were born into. However, if our minds and ideologies are so heavily influenced by culture, what makes us different in the trend of globalization and acculturation? Are we slowly becoming the same? It is an intriguing question.

Prior to 2009, I was a resident of Chengdu, one of the most populated metropolises in Western China, where traditional Chinese quadrangle dwellings are preserved and conflated with contemporary urban fabric and lifestyle. Since then, I have been a student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and a traveler to cities around the world. This experience has given me opportunities to immerse myself in diverse cultures, discover landscapes and urban spaces that are unique to different social environments, and tackle how local residents interact with those spaces.

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Social psychologist Harold M. Proshansky believes that the cultural identity of a place is a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity and consists of knowledge and feelings developed through everyday experiences of physical spaces. Sometimes cultural identity and landscape are so tightly bounded that it is hard to separate them, like gardens in Versailles, Central Park in New York City, or a random prairie plateau in Aberdeen, Scotland. These spaces are historical or unique mainly because of local natural characteristics. They establish a balance between nature and human cultural activities and provide people a sense of place and belonging. However, in the global trend of uniformity and homogeneousness, how can one ensure a newly proposed landscape design can achieve the same effect? How can urban landscape enhance regional cultural identity and provide a sense a place?

To me, any given land contains information that is both tangible and intangible. It is almost natural for us to study the tangible aspects — hydrology, topography, vegetation, land use, soil type, spatial organization, and circulation system — because they have a direct relationship to the visual and ecological outcomes of a project. However, the cultural identity of a place derives from the intangible parts in which a piece of landscape functions to provide a sense of belonging — local history, tradition, religion, festivals, public desire, and other demographic information.

I demonstrated my beliefs in my past works during my time at Purdue. Natural Water as Cultural Water, a research project I did during junior year, sought to find the balance between culture and nature along the Wabash River in Lafayette, Indiana, which is currently underappreciated because of flooding, vacancy and disconnection. The proposed solution is an embodiment of cultural representation and technology of stormwater management. wabash02

The inspiration for the design comes from the city’s history — the transportation instrument Native Americans originally used on the river, and the major agricultural product of the region: corn. The geometric structure of the canoe and the matrix of the corn seeds were taken, hybridized and re-conceptualized into revelatory units to construct concave and convex landforms. It reroutes and collects water and serves as a buffer between the river and the city during flooding seasons. The plan provides a refuge for wetland plants and animal species. With potential for spontaneous use and dynamic programing, the site can transform into a sustainable landscape infrastructure with a cultural identity that provides an active waterfront experience. The regional planning phase of the project won the Award of Excellence in Analysis and Planning in the American Society of Landscape Architects 2013 Student Awards.

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For more information about the project, visit the ASLA award website: https://www.asla.org/2013studentawards/128.html, or my personal website: http://www.minimaxstudio.com/

Daniel received his Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture with a minor in Fine Arts from Purdue University in May 2015. He is currently working at Sasaki Associates in Boston.

2016 CSI Projects and Firms Announced

LAF has selected 15 high-performing landscape projects for its 2016 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. CSI is a unique research collaboration that matches LAF-funded faculty-student research teams with design practitioners to document the benefits of exemplary landscape projects.

Participants from each firm will work with the 2016 CSI Research Fellows to evaluate the environmental, social, and economic performance of the selected projects. The resulting Case Study Briefs are published to LAF’s award-winning Landscape Performance Series database of over 100 projects.

This year’s cohort comprises a range of project typologies, including three waterfront parks, a stormwater treatment facility, an EPA Region headquarters, a stream restoration, and several landmark urban parks. The 2016 projects will add unrepresented geographies — namely Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, and Canada — to the Landscape Performance Series.

The 2016 CSI program kicks off in February and runs through early August. The resulting Case Study Briefs from these participating firms and projects will be published in the fall: 

  • phippsconservatoryAndropogon's Phipps Conservatory

    2D Studio
    Fairview Environmental Park, Montgomery, AL

  • Andropogon
    Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA
    University of Pennsylvania - Shoemaker Green, Philadelphia, PA
  • BNIM
    EPA Region 7 Headquarters, Lenexa, KS
    Swope Campus Parking Lot, Kansas City, MO
  • HNP Landscape Architecture
    Samford Park at Toomer’s Corner Landscape, Auburn, AL
  • hto-parkJanet Rosenberg + Associates' HtO ParkJanet Rosenberg + Associates
    HtO Park, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • Kansas City Water Services Department
    Middle Blue River Basin Green Solutions Pilot Project, Kansas City, MO
  • Mia Lehrer + Associates
    Vista Hermosa, Los Angeles, CA
  • Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
    Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn, NY
    Corktown Common, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • PFS Studio
    Sherbourne Common Park, Toronto, ON, CanadarailroadparkTom Leader Studio's Railroad Park
  • Psomas
    South Los Angeles Wetland Park, Los Angeles, CA
  • SWA Group
    Shenzhen Bay, Shenzhen, China
  • Tom Leader Studio
    Railroad Park, Birmingham, AL

We look forward to working with the firms and learning more about these amazing projects and their impacts!

 

2016 CSI Research Fellows Announced

Six faculty Research Fellows have been selected for LAF’s 2016 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. CSI is a unique research collaboration that matches faculty-student research teams with design firms to document the benefits of exemplary high-performing landscape projects. Teams develop methods to quantify environmental, economic and social benefits and produce Case Study Briefs for LAF’s Landscape Performance Series.

csi-graphic-v2Research Fellows lead the CSI collaboration, work with firms to identify measurable impacts of select projects, develop evaluation methods, and oversee the case study production process. These select faculty members receive an honorarium and funding to support a student research assistant.

The following LAF Research Fellows will lead the five 2016 Case Study Investigation teams:

  • Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, AICP, Auburn University
  • Howard Hahn, RLA, ASLA, Kansas State University
  • Nicholas Pevzner, University of Pennsylvania
  • Kelly Shannon, PhD, University of Southern California
  • Jane Wolff and Elise Shelley, University of Toronto

We look forward to working with this distinguished group! The 2016 CSI program gets underway in February and runs through early August. Research teams will document the performance of 15 exemplary projects. Stay tuned — next week, we’ll announce the projects and firms selected for participation.

Happy 2016!

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) wishes you all the best as 2016 gets underway! This year marks LAF’s 50th anniversary, and we look forward to celebrating with you throughout the year. Look for announcements about new transformative programs and initiatives, and save the date for June 10-11 in Philadelphia when we host a landmark summit about landscape architecture and the future!

Thanks to all of our friends and supporters who stopped by our photobooth in Chicago to help us kick off this year of celebration! (See a higher resolution version here.)

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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Exploring Relationships Between People and Water

By Sarah Bolivar, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

Now that I am in my third and final year of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) Master of Landscape Architecture program, I think back to the query that brought me to the design field: how people manage water, a transboundary resource. In retrospect, this interest has remained constant, although I could not have imagined the various scales and issues I’d study pertaining to water. Through the GSD, I have been fortunate to examine stormwater in Nepal, the role of paths in the context of tsunami evacuation, and now, a thesis around tribal salmon harvest in the Pacific Northwest.

During the summer of 2014, with the support of the South Asia Institute and GSD Community Service Fellowship, I traveled 15 hours by plane and 16 hours by bus to Surkhet, Nepal, a verdant valley overlaid by housing, commerce, and agriculture in the subtropical Terai belt. A friend at Kopila Valley, a school serving 350 students, connected me with the managing non-profit, BlinkNow, which invited me to provide landscape design strategies for a new school complex. I led hands-on workshops so students could learn about landscape architecture and I could learn about their favorite spaces, but I struggled to find the best ways to integrate students’ voices into the project. One clear element was the monsoon season that would soon come, and with it, potential flooding or erosion throughout the school. Part of the design strategy revolved around tackling and revealing these water flows. A week after I returned to the states, a monsoon caused rivers to swell, and massive flooding coupled with landslides left hundreds without homes.

bolivar01-nepalSurkhet, Nepal (Image: Jack Cochran)

Given that Nepal is prone to earthquakes and landslides, I was eager to learn more about places that could serve as precedents for responding to natural disasters. With the financial support of the Asia Center and GSD Penny White Fund, my friend, Jessie Booth (MLA ‘16), and I traveled to low-density coastal cities in Japan, Kamaishi and Ishinomaki, both devastated by the 3/11 Tsunami. We sought to understand the role that landscape could play in supporting natural disaster preparedness. Specifically, we wondered how pedestrian evacuation paths could become imprinted in the collective memory to serve residents during emergency and non-emergency times.

bolivar02-japanCoastal infrastructure in Ishinomaki, Japan

One of the biggest takeaways was each city’s reconstruction plan did not necessarily work in tandem with neighboring cities’ plans. Each city could be broadly characterized either by a “bottom-up” or “top-down” reconstruction approach. Additionally, most affected cities are continuing to invest in structures that have a singular use and narrow lifespan, such as tetrapods and seawalls. This spring, Jessie and I will synthesize our research findings into a document we can share with our friends and partners in Japan.

Working in Japan and Nepal allowed me to be acutely aware of the challenges designers face when the site has a different cultural context than one’s own, the site is thousands of miles away, the work is pro-bono, and the work is conceived within an academic umbrella. Each of these conditions renders its own opportunities and challenges.

I reflect constantly on the politicized nature of my role as I develop a thesis around a place that is dear to me, the Salish Coast, located in the Pacific Northwest. In this region, I’ll be exploring the role that design can play in supporting salmon habitat and harvest to thereby protect indigenous sovereignty rights for the Lummi and Nooksack Nations. Given that indigenous people have been systematically oppressed through physical force and political contracts, I must understand that my language and actions are too, as my friend Elizabeth Bragg of the Blackfoot Nation would put it, “colored by colonizing practices of the past.”

bolivar03-nooksackriverNooksack River, general thesis site in the Pacific Northwest

And as I begin to develop the project, I come back to the issue of water, in this case, the hydrological conditions that affect salmon reproduction. With the guidance of my thesis advisor, Jane Hutton, and thesis cohort, I look forward to continuing to explore the relationship between people and water in all its multifaceted forms.

Sarah Bolivar is currently working on her thesis, as well as planning International Women’s Day on March 08 with the GSD Women in Design team.