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Olmsted Scholar Feature: On Participating in Community

by Christopher Jennette, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

jennette-a-c06As a graduate student for three years, I spent many hours trying to better understand what we, as landscape architects, mean when we say the word “community”.  At once geographical, cultural, and somewhat intangible, the concept of community is ever-present in our design thinking, process, and language. Landscape architects spend a good deal of time thinking about communities: how to create and enhance them, to engage with and inspire them, and to help them find and express their identities. This past year, after making my first big move since graduate school, I realized something about communities that I had always known, but that somehow escaped me over the course of so many nights waxing academic — we live in them.  

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts this past spring, I packed my life into a few boxes and moved south to Louisville, Kentucky. Not knowing much about Louisville, I was a bit apprehensive about the transition from the snowy, familiar sights of Northampton, Massachusetts to a city best known for horse racing, baseball bats, and bourbon. I did some research, and learned that Louisville is a city of roughly 1.26 million residents (metro). It has an extensive (and expanding) parks system including a number of Olmsted-designed gems right near downtown, many great restaurants showcasing locally grown ingredients, and a thriving arts community. Upon arriving, I was excited to explore my new home, and to make discoveries on-foot instead of on-internet.

jennette-bThough some of what I discovered here was expected: that thing called southern hospitality I’d heard so much about but never thought was real, barbeque the likes of which New England has never seen, and more days above 90 degrees than I care to relive — some of my discoveries came as a truly pleasant surprise. Neighbors raising chickens in my neighborhood just east of downtown, crowded farmer’s markets replete with beautiful, fresh produce, meat and poultry throughout the week, a community garden just around the corner, and bright orange 95-gallon recycling bins in front of nearly every business on my walk to the bus stop, to name a few.

Last month, I joined Louisville’s 9th District “Green Triangle Coordination Team” - a diverse group of local citizens, professionals, and business owners that will serve as a jennette-cresource to identify, enhance, develop, support, and connect green initiatives throughout the district in which I live. One aspect of Landscape Architecture that has always excited me is the potential for our profession to be a key linkage — to coordinate and connect many different groups of people and ideas. I’m excited about the prospect of wholeheartedly engaging with my community, and working to reveal, connect, and celebrate the great things that are happening here.  

Becoming part of the coordination team got me thinking about the role that we play as professionals in our local communities, and it also brought up a couple of questions that I thought blog readers might like to ponder along with me. Though we, as landscape architects, have spent a great deal of time refining our skills so as to better support our instincts as designers and thinkers, are we putting those skills to use in our own communities? Do we, as trained, talented creative people, have a responsibility not just to our profession, but to our neighbors? In the coming year, I encourage you all to seek out the wealth of opportunity right outside your door, and to put your hard earned skills to work for the good of the community in which you live.

Chris Jennette earned his Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts in May.  He is currently living and working in Louisville, Kentucky as a landscape and graphic designer.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Dynamic Design Communication's Role in Community Participation

by Travis Flohr, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

flohr-pic-1Circleville Farm (State College, PA) juxtaposed by sprawl.

Decreased water, soil and air quality; changes in microclimate; and the loss of prime agricultural farmland are all issues associated with sprawl. Sprawl disrupts social networks and communities, and negatively changes environmental and ecologic patterns. What legacy are these development patterns leaving on the landscape? These complex but interrelated issues require interdisciplinary and collaborative problem solving. While landscape architects identified this important change in planning 30+ years ago and have incorporated these approaches into community design, the planning process has changed little. Plans and designs are still commonly communicated with static images and jargon filled, text-based policies leaving many community members unable to comprehend the broader impacts of their decisions and limited opportunity to provide feedback.

People are willing to choose alternatives to sprawl if given the opportunity and provided with adequate information in a way that is understandable. To understand and facilitate changes in the design and planning of these developments, new tools can be implemented that better communicate issues and present viable alternatives.

Quality writing is the foundation of written, verbal, and visual communication (including but not limited to design graphics, animations, movies, etc), but it is only one tool at our disposal. We are in the midst of a communication shift. We can now use technology to instantly communicate with millions of people. Is this shift for the better, and how might we use it successfully within the profession?

flohr-pic-2Master thesis interactive, three-dimensional test website.

Traditional methods can be augmented by new technology, research, and learning agendas that will help better communicate the connections and relationships between the complex issues involved in community planning and design. GeoDesign is one such agenda that pushes for the early use of analysis in the design process to vette early design concepts for suitability. Early GeoDesign tools were meant for the designer.  As the technology evolves, these tools are starting to be integrated into participatory processes; however, these tools are still in their infancy. By tapping into internet technologies, social media, and GIS, we have the potential to:

  • Capture a wider audience
  • Provide a greater depth of information on designs and planning decisions earlier in the process
  • Use interactive, multimedia enriched content to better facilitate communication of complex ideas
  • Integrate and capture community held ideals and values
  • Influence public decision making that emphasizes environmental, social, and geographic features that minimize undesirable impacts

The development of these tools will be critical in expanding community engagement in an increasingly complex and learning centered society.

Travis Flohr is currently involved in numerous research projects while finishing his Master’s Thesis in Landscape Architecture at The Pennsylvania State University.  This fall he plans on pursuing a PhD at the University of Colorado. Starting February 1, 2011 if you wish you may participate in this ongoing study by visiting www.iecoplanningstudio.com. He can be contacted at tlf159@psu.edu.