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CSI: I Know a Guy (or Gal)...

By Michele Palmer, Lecturer, Department of Landscape Architecture, Cornell University

The true complexity of evaluating the perfomance of landscape architecture projects first became clear to me while attending the presentations about LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program at the 2014 CELA conference in Baltimore, and frankly I was a bit overwhelmed. But like any complex task, it seemed that breaking it down to separate tasks and knowing where to seek help was the key to making all of the work. My research assistant Muj Powell and I are not biologists, social scientists, civil engineers or soil scientists, but there was a good chance that we could find all of those disciplines and many more among my colleagues at Cornell University. As we sought out assistance, many of those conversations led to the statement “I know a guy”… or frequently a gal. 

The process of recruiting began when our team attended the client kick-off meeting for the Nevin Welcome Center case study at the Cornell Plantations. We were fortunate to have the University Landscape Architect, David Cutter, present with great enthusiasm for our project.  He listened to the discussion about the benefits and then suggested we meet with researchers he knew throughout the university who were studying various topics such as soil health, pollinators, the functioning of bio-retention filters, small mammal habitat and more. 

csi-cornell01Lauren McPhillps, graduate student in Biological and Environmental Enginnering, sets up water sampling.

Not all of these contacts proved to be fruitful, but those that have are enriching the experience and strengthening our research. It became clear in meeting these researchers that they were scientists. While we’re not, our broad, outwardly-focused training as landscape architects allows us to have intelligent conversations with a broad range of disciplines. We feel strongly that the collaborations are leading to solid case studies and new methodologies that can hopefully be applied to future case studies.

One such collaboration was conducted with Dr. Nina Bassuk who leads the Urban Horticulture Institute.  She and Professor Peter Trowbridge have been studying the benefits of improving planting soil with compost and mulch. A simple regime of initially improving soil with compost followed by annual mulching has been shown to have multiple benefits including at least doubling active carbon in soil, increasing sequestration potential as well as improving plant growth. Nina has helped us take soil samples which are currently being processed. Since many filter practice installations follow the same regime, we believe that we can extrapolate the potential benefits to other studies.  

Another soil scientist, Todd Walters, and graduate student Lauren McPhillps have been studying water quality basin function and conducting research on greenhouse gas emissions and anions at the Nevin Center and other locations on the campus. They have agreed to share their past research and conduct water quality sampling to see if the filter practices function as expected.

csi-cornell02Research Assistant Muj Powell talks surveys with Justin Kondrat, a horticulture intern at the Plantations.

We’ve had cross pollination among our projects as well. While discussing environmental benefit studies with Liz Walker of EcoVillage Inc., she mentioned Cornell Doctoral candidate Laura Russo, an EcoVillage resident who is studying bees as pollinators. Laura met with us to discuss strategies for conducting insect counts.

At the Plantations, staff have been remarkably helpful and led us to Director of Education, Sonja Skelly who has a background in social science and has been extremely helpful in critiquing our plan for surveying visitors. She had insights on how to get at the information we really want to know and how best to order questions. 

In a university the size of Cornell, it is virtually impossible to grasp the breadth of research being conducted, but these personal, word-of-mouth referrals have led us down paths we would not likely have considered, broadening our studies, increasing the rigor, and enriching the already rewarding experience of conducting the case studies.

Research Fellow Michele Palmer and student Research Assistant Muj Powell are participating in LAF’s 2014 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. They are working to evaluate and document the performance of three exemplary landscape projects in Upstate New York.

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