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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Occupying Space

by Jesse Jones, 2011 Olmsted Scholar

Public spaces are valuable venues for civic expression. Over the last few months, we watched the rise of the Occupy Movement bring new attention to the use of public space and the role of collective gathering to cities across the United States. Putting aside political affiliation or belief in the rightness or wrongness or even effectiveness of these protests, it is without question that these concentrated and intentional Occupations made a dramatic impact in the urban areas in which they occurred. In Oakland, California, where I live, Occupiers of a downtown square renamed the space and established a communal living village. Numerous attempts to close the camp effectively failed as people returned after each of the closures and reestablished the space; however Occupy Oakland eventually moved to a vacant lot near the original site.

jesse-jonesimage1Although there is also probably much to learn from Occupy about collective action and the psychology of protest, as a young landscape architect, I am most intrigued by this movement for its utopian idealism in the value of common spaces and as a model for development from the ground up. Embedded within Occupy is a commitment to reactivation and use of spaces or structures that have been left out or aban- doned: in a way, a call to action on vacancy. It is also a call to making. Development inevitably slowed down with the economic recession, so traditional place-making procedures are stalled. In the mean- time, movements like Occupy suggest that people make spaces themselves and should demand that they be allowed to do so.

The community garden is probably one of the most common examples of collective occupation in American cities and provides a valuable outlet for individuals to make public or semi-public space. With the rise of Occupy, I am excited to see what new and different ventures develop in currently underutilized spaces. As a landscape designer, I believe this opens up a world of possibilities to consider utility in what is currently vacant. Following the lead of Occupy, I have a two suggestions of useful uses of vacant spaces during this time of slowed development.

Phytoremediation Fill In
A number of vacant lots are contaminated and pose a threat to human health as well as a liability for future developers. They sit vacant awaiting development that will remove or treat the contamination just prior to construction. During that waiting period, the site could be planted with phytoremediating plants that work to extract contaminants from the soil. Although specific work would need to be completed to select plants that work effectively with the pollutant, a planting strategy could be established that successfully improves the soil while providing a pleasant view for the surrounding neighbors.


Vacant Lot Flower Farm
The United States imports the vast majority of its cut flowers from countries around the world. Although many of our cities do not have the correct growing climate to produce popular tropical varieties, in many places, local flower production could provide a progressive alternative to importing. Although the flower palette would be more limited, the relationship to local growing conditions would be more evident. An urban nursery would provide a educational and beautiful venue for flower production. 

jesse-jonesimage3Jesse Jones received her Masters of Landscape Architecture from University of California, Berkeley, in May 2011. She currently designs and maintains edible gardens for a school district in the Bay Area. 

LPS on the Road: South Central Region

Meet representatives from LAF, network with other landscape architects, and learn about the Landscape Performance Series at one of these upcoming events:

College Station, Texas

Thursday, February 2, 2012

tamulogoJoin students and faculty from Texas A&M’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning for an overview of LAF’s scholarship and fellowship programs, followed by a presentation and discussion on the Landscape Performance Series.

Texas A&M University
Location details coming soon


Houston, Texas

Friday, February 3, 2012

laf-swa-invite-2012sFollowing a short reception, LAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch will present the Landscape Performance Series . Cocktails start at 4pm, and the program starts at 4:30pm. This event is open to the all, but please RSVP by Mon, Jan 30 to

SWA Group
1245 W. 18th Street
Houston, TX 77008
Phone: 713-868-1676

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Saturday, February 4, 2012

lcaslallogoLAF Executive Director Barbara Deutsch will present the Landscape Performance Series at the Louisiana Chaper of ASLA 2012 Annual Meeting. This day-long event starts and 8:30am and includes Educational and Technical Sessions, LARE Review, and an Awards Banquet. CEUs are available.

LCASLA Annual Meeting
Shaw Center/Manship Theatre
Downtown Baton Rouge

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Transgressing the Grid

by Alison Hirsch, 2011 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

This past fall, my partner, Aroussiak Gabrielian, and I submitted a proposal to The Greatest Grid: A Call for Ideas, a design competition recognizing the 200-year anniversary of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for New York. The competition announcement requested we “propose new ways for thinking about how the street grid shapes life in New York.”

hirschfig3sWe proposed that the future of Manhattan’s street grid lies in the opportunities created by its famous “rogue street” — Broadway. Only by the grid’s relentless uniformity can we appreciate its rare disconti- nuities and only through the idiosyncrasies created by Broadway does the true nature of the grid become visible to the inhabitants on the street. Through the aesthetic practice of walking, the dying medium through which the city was once perceived and enjoyed, we investigated the symbiosis that exists between the grid and that resilient street which pre-dated and transgressed it.

Rather than a bombastic physical restructuring, we suggested a reframing of perspective to project the city into the future. Through the following four operations, we highlighted the thrill of the obedient grid through a walk down the island’s subversive street.


Broadway is the grid’s backbone or datum. We exaggerated this condition by representing it as a straight line, which transformed the grid from its unforgiving rigidity to a system of shifting geographies. By straightening Broadway, the plan accentuates its adjacency to the river in the north and its tightly landlocked condition in the south. In the north, we strengthened the exchange between Broadway at the crest of the rise and the river at its base through a physical weaving of ecologies from each system. Because lower Broadway is deep in the interior of the island, awareness of the city’s geography and ecology diminishes. We thus constructed an “edge ecology” along Broadway — a vegetated catchment and filtration system, which conforms to the logic of the city.


Although the grid offers a reliable metric to our peripatetic experience, New Yorkers have become habituated to its predictable structure. Broadway increases duration. Around the street’s bends, the rhythm shifts, stretching time. When Broadway is straightened and its angular relationship to its cross-streets remains the same, the grid ceases to be a grid and, instead, becomes a complex web of overlapping relationships. By identifying the “nodes” of these intersections, a new urban network emerges. We ensured that each node was identifiable by one of three surface deployments, which catalyze performance appropriation. Public performance triggers material performance by means of piezoelectric technology that translates vibration into energy to feed into the local supply.



Through a 360-degree photographic sequence taken each time the grid crosses Broadway, we stretched Broadway’s horizon, unrolling it into a gridded field (detail pictured). When Broadway transforms from a line to a field, we emphasize its position as a place rather than a means to get from one point to another. The relentless linear perspective of the grid plan makes the walk down other avenues a redundant pinching of the horizon. Because of Broadway’s transgressive nature, the walker experiences a multiplicity of unpredicted perspectives and varied relationships to the sky.

The horizon orients the body in relation to a greater territory. New Yorkers have a unique relationship to the horizon. They experience it either as a horizontal expanse at the rivers’ edges or it is obscured within a vertical shaft between buildings. We suggested a breakdown of this dichotomy through elevation shifts that diversify the body’s relationship with the ground and sky. By physically lifting the body off the ground in a topographic infrastructure along Broadway, the horizon rhythmically expands and contracts.


Despite the leveling of Manhattan while implementing the grid plan, Broadway retains a sectional thickness. Its topographic variety in the north and south is enhanced by its subgrade network of subways and aqueducts, which represent unexplored opportunities for new forms of appropriating and enjoying the city. From an elevated position, the grid is comprehensible; from the ground, it is understood; but the transgressive spaces below the city offer the ultimate opportunity to get lost.

hirschfig2sAlison B. Hirsch has an MLA, an MS in Historic Preservation and a PhD in Architecture and she is currently teaching in the Landscape Architecture department of the University of Virginia. Her book, City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin & Public Performance in Urban Renewal America will be published by University of Minnesota Press by the end of 2012.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Addressing the Urban Divide in Porto Alegre, Brazil

by Abigail Shemoel, 2011 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Growth patterns are shifting and the world is urbanizing. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), by 2030 populations in all developing areas will be more urban than rural. However, rather than socially just and inclusive societies, the process has fueled the formation of highly separated cities often characterized by exclusion and marginalization.  The favelas of Brazil, home to more than six million, stand as a current and clear example of this ‘urban divide.’ While the severity of conditions varies, common characteristics of favelas, which include high density, insufficient infrastructure, and minimal space for recreation, community interaction and expression, highlight the need for strategic improvement strategies.

analysissmallerFigure 1 - Figure/Ground Studies

Recognizing this need, my undergraduate research thesis sought to address the urban divide in the specific setting of Vila Nossa Senhora de Fátima, an informal settlement located in Porto Alegre, Brazil. While my study began with a broad exploration of strategies to improve social, economic and environmental conditions within the existing structure of informal settlements, I was able to contextualize my research during the semester I spent studying at Pontificia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul. Combining this information with a critical analysis of the site’s characteristics allowed for the informed establishment of design guidelines, which articulated the need to focus on sustainable small-scale strategies, to create opportunities for community participation, interaction and expression, and to implement improvements that would maximize benefits for residents in all their diversity.

masterFigure 2 - Conceptual Master Plan

Adhering to the guidelines, a design for a community hub and circulation network within Vila Fátima was developed and explored at master and site plan scales. At three critical locations — the main thoroughfare, a polluted waterway surrounded by deteriorating and overcrowded housing, and an underused open space — opportunities to interlace wider recreational, educational, economic and social functions into the existing structure were identified. In the large open space, for example, an improved soccer field is surrounded by new public destinations such as a community center, playground, exercise area, market facilities and gathering spaces for small and large groups.

progressionFigure 3 - Phasing and Participation Plan

Perhaps the more challenging and critical aspect of the design involved defining empowerment and participation opportunities for residents. Crucial to this notion was the realization that a final design vision was far less important than creating opportunities for a community-driven vision. Therefore, as shown in Figure 3, efforts to define possible implementation sequences with highlighted participation opportunities were made for each of the focus areas.

The project ultimately shows the potential for landscape architecture to facilitate the creation of well-designed and locally meaningful public spaces that can help to ameliorate social issues while also creating economic opportunities and environmental improvements. While the design’s overarching principles may serve to inform wider projects within and beyond the neighborhood, this remains heavily dependent on the ability of projects to incorporate and respond to site-specific conditions.

Inspired, yet humbled by my experience in Brazil, I have chosen to further my education by pursuing an MSc in Urban Development Planning at University College London. The program in which I am currently enrolled is helping me establish an important understanding of how socio-political and economic forces affect the structure of cities. It is this wider perspective I hope to bring to my future research and design work, as the need to find sustainable and just paths towards urbanization becomes ever more pertinent.

Abby recevied her Bachelor’s Degree in Landcape Architecture from Ball State University last summer. She now lives in London, England where she studies Urban Development Planning at University College London.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: 7 Design Resolutions for 2012

2012tinsel-500w-6rpby Chelsea Vargas, 2011 Olmsed Scholar

January is always a great time for a little self-improvement. In celebration of a new year and my final semester in my MLA program, I’ve made 7 design resolutions for 2012 — things I hope to keep in mind as I finish up my time as a student and transition to the working world.

1. Observe. It can be easy to get tangled up in studio and classes and forget about the world we live in. This year I want to be extra careful to observe the world around me: how people use space, how plants adjust to their conditions, how materials weather, how light changes.

2. Draw draw draw! And take pictures, write, make maps. Being able to think and communicate visually is an incredibly valuable skill that should be practiced. And drawing is a great way to observe more deeply and keep a record of sights and experiences.

3. Listen, read, watch, converse. In addition to my own observations, I want to know about what other people — in other fields, in other places, from other times — are seeing and experiencing. I want to be able to design for people and with people, not just myself.

4. Cultivate intuition. I hugely value my analytical mind, but this year I’d like to develop my intuition as well. Rationality and intuition make a great team.

5. Push harder. This year I want to push my ideas, drawings, materials, and tools to their limits. I want to make bold statements and draw bold lines. I want to test boundaries, even if that means pushing too far every now and then.

6. Shake things up. I hope to use old tools in new ways, switch from drawings to models, argue the other side, and put things where they don’t belong. Nothing like a little disruption to help me see things differently.

7. Make stuff. This is my most important resolution of all. This year, I will make drawings and models. I want to commit to an idea and execute it. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking, but things really get exciting once you actually make something.

In May, Chelsea will graduate from The University of Texas at Austin’s Masters of Landscape Architecture program. She looks forward to beginning a professional career in landscape architecture in the fall, following a summer trip to Japan where she will study materiality and abstraction in Mirei Shigemori’s Kyoto gardens.