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Olmsted Scholar Feature: The Los Angeles Riverscape - An Urban Estuary

By Tina Chee, 2012 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Urban Rivers. With only concentrated periods of rainfall during limited times of the year in cities such as Los Angeles, how might we reconceive of and reutilize our now concrete and channelized urban rivers with multiplicity as we reconsider issues of lack of open green space and connectivity within post-industrial cities while still providing essential services and responding to environmental and ecological systems? This is the challenge that we must respond to.

This past spring, my studio examined the relationship between landscape and infrastructure, and the potential to transform single-purposed infrastructure into part recreational parkscape, part infrastructural urbanism, part ecological machine, and part water management and flood mitigation engineering. This design proposal seeks to express the state of landscape as a multi-purposed and multi-faceted experiential and infrastructural network; a landscape that creates urban connectivity, that is spatially experiential, that restores our connection to nature in the city, and that creates a multitude of habitat types while serving functional requirements for essential services such as flood mitigation, temporal water detention, and the treatment of urban runoff.

The Los Angeles River is re-envisioned as an urban estuary — the confluence of people and natural systems into a cohesive network that unites neighborhoods and ultimately the entire city. Our connection to nature is re-established by making access to this hidden resource as permeable as feasible, and by creating a network of meandering experiential pathways within the river itself. Neighborhood pocket parks reclaim adjacent vacant parcels along the existing bike path and further integrate the river with its existing fabric. The existing concrete banks are replaced with tiered upper and lower park zones, which create intimate opportunities to inhabit and engage the river edge as well as public spaces to gather along the river bank with protected troughs for vegetation.

chee01-riverviewA variety of natural habitats are created for land and aquatic life through a cluster of islands and pools of varying elevations and depths that treat water as the living organism above, beneath, and within its surface matter. The islands are part concrete, part porous concrete, part custom concrete block revetement system and serve multiple functions. They direct water into separate channels to create habitat, create opportunities for active and passive recreation, and assist in the mitigation of flood waters. The upper portions are made of open-celled concrete blocks of various sized apertures, which allow vegetation to nest in and can receive rising flood water, temporarily detaining the additional water until the flood water level subsides. The bottom portions are made of porous concrete, and through gravity, the detained water is slowly released to support the surrounding aquatic habitat and serve as additional water supply for the various planted ecotones. Through the development of a three channel system, rapid, meandering, and placid water velocities further encourage various habitat environments. The three channel system also allows for a variable flood plain, which increases the effective channel width as needed.

chee02-diagramThe configuration and treat- ment of urban edges are conceived of as curvilinear and convoluted compressed zones which foster habitat diversity in plant and wildlife. Ecological processes are incorporated to treat urban stormwater runoff through a series of phytoremediation filtration terraces, basins, and runnels. Natural phenomena such as erosion, scouring, and sand deposition are explored as dynamic processes which inform the morphology of a new channel configuration.

The islands, pools, and barrier reefs serve as sculptural armatures which engage these powerful processes and provide the framework that allows nature to re-establish, take hold, and self evolve in this harsh urban environment while assisting in the redirection and mediation of flood waters during storms. Sand and sediment deposition are encouraged as means of natural succession to this man-made intervention. The design itself evolves beyond its initial framework through the forces of nature. 

We took a very unique approach to study natural phenomena of water flow, scouring, and sand deposition. These natural processes were physically explored using a 1”=30’ physical model with 2X vertical distortion. Design models were CNC milled and tested with running water at various water flows with ground walnut shells to simulate the effects of water velocity, water scouring, and sand deposition. Colored dye was used to highlight the actual water effects and flow directions. Kayaking speeds were taken as a measure of water velocity. Water depth measurements were taken at various points at the various water velocities. The results of the water tests were recorded, analyzed, and used to further inform the design.


Tina Chee is a MLA candidate at the University of Southern California and will graduate in May 2013. This project was created as part of instructor Alex Robinson’s spring semester studio. This summer, Tina participated in the SWA internship program which focused on the definition and creation of an Eco District in San Francisco. She is currently working on her thesis which will explore strategies that operate at the juncture of landscape, urbanism, architecture, infrastructure, and social programming for re-envisioning the nature of Los Angeles.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: A Landscape Architect in Coal Country

By Marin Braco, 2012 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist 

As an undergraduate, I studied art history where I became interested in the field of environmental art. While in school, I had no idea that this interest would land me a job that would involve understanding the geologic formation of coal, learning how to read a map of 600 feet of abandoned mines, and knowing terms like ‘culm’ and the difference between anthracite and bituminous. I was serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer working on a coal mine reclamation project with environmental artist Patricia Johanson in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was during this experience that I decided that my interests lay beyond the confines of museum walls, and soon after the completion of my term, I applied to graduate school for landscape architecture.

Three years later, I returned to the same branch of AmeriCorps, the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team (ACCWT), for my capstone project. Living and working directly with a community in northeastern Ohio, I developed a master plan which aims to convert an abandoned iron works into a multi-functioning park. At the heart of this 35-acre site are 4 rows of beehive coke ovens, 205 ovens in total, one of the largest installations of its kind in the United States.

braco01-700wCherry Valley Coke Ovens and the Coke Oven Advisory Commission.

During the summer of 2011, I worked in Leetonia, Ohio doing research, site inventory, meeting with community members and professionals, and drawing as a way to document and synthesize the information I gathered. I was able to see the site through a number of lenses, meeting with hydrologists, engineers, geographers, urban foresters, and local historians. One day I walked around the site with an engineer who was able to zoom in on structural details of the site’s infrastructure. The very next day, I went on a two-hour drive with a geography professor, giving me a ‘regional context tour’. As we drove along the steel corridor of Youngstown, he pointed out abandoned mills and lakes that were created in order to supply water for steel-making processes. I also heard memories and stories from community members. Oral history reports completed in the early 1980s were essential to understanding the site from the viewpoint of the people that worked there. I held community meetings throughout the process to share the information I was gathering and to receive input.

Taking inspiration from the work and process of Johanson, my approach to this master plan is founded in placed-based design, drawing on the character of the site and the community that surrounds it. The design seeks to make both historical and ecological processes visible. Drainage across the site will address issues of contamination from both stormwater and acid mine drainage. Ecological management will maintain different stages of succession. Historic processes tell narratives relevant on a national, regional, and also very local level — from the American story of immigration, to the regional importance of the iron and steel industry and the strong link between Cherry Valley Coke Ovens and the formation of this town. This project aims to weave into the fabric of the community, allowing small interventions to unfold over time, with continued support from the advisory commission, AmeriCorps volunteers, local universities, and professionals. In doing so, this project has the potential to be a catalyst for the revitalization of the downtown.

braco03-700wThe master plan's ecological strategy emphasizes the evolution of ecological systems that have taken over the site since industry left. Similarly, the architectural strategy aims to make visible the element of time by preserving the ovens in varying degrees of restoration and decay.

I am not the first landscape architect to volunteer with the ACCWT, and I certainly hope I am not the last. By working with AmeriCorps, our skills can extend to communities that may not otherwise have access to such services. At the same time, it gives young designers a chance to develop and grow as they gain experience doing meaningful work. I am fully aware that I may never have the chance to know a site, its history and community so intimately ever again, and am very grateful for such an opportunity.

Marin recently graduated with a Master of Landscape Architecture from State University of New York - College of Environmental Science and Forestry. If you are interested in learning more about opportunities for landscape architects in the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, you can contact her at or vistit the ACCWT website:

Reflections on the CSI Experience

By Delia Lacson, MLA Candidate, University of Washington

Through participating in LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program several times in different capacities, I have developed a strong foundation of skills in assessment, communication, and analysis for a wide variety of different landscape performance benefits. 

Last summer I worked as a Research Assistant with CSI Research Fellow Ken Yocom to develop and publish three LPS Case Study Briefs. In the fall, I was a Teaching Assistant with Professor Nancy Rottle’s Sustainable Urban Landscapes Seminar, in which students used the CSI model to tackle the production of a dozen case studies. In the spring, I continued to work with LAF to tie up loose ends on those case studies, and this summer I’m again working as a CSI Research Assistant, this time under Professor Rottle.

These opportunities have given me:

  • a clearer understanding and awareness of the availability, benefits, and limitations of calculation tools and monitoring data,
  • stronger technical skills as a writer and editor, and
  • the skills and tools necessary to manage a small project.

My experience with LAF and CSI has led me to continue working in the nonprofit field as a consultant. I am currently developing case studies for a nonprofit group here in Chicago, providing research and analysis with a focus on advancing and integrating education, urban agriculture and technology.

Thanks to all of the reviewers and program developers at LAF for working to make this very unique form of advocacy and education in the field of landscape architecture a reality and for helping me build skills that have taken me into a very exciting new field of research, design, and development

Research Assistant Delia Lacson is participating in LAF’s 2012 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working with Research Fellow Nancy Rottle to finalize and develop case studies for a number of projects in the Pacific Northwest.

Onsite at the Frontier Project with CSI's K-State Research Team

By Jessica Canfield, Professor and Elise Fagan, MLA Candidate, Kansas State University

Case Study Investigation (CSI) Research Fellow Jessica Canfield and Research Assistant Elise Fagan recently spent a week onsite at the Frontier Project in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Located east of Los Angeles, in the Inland Empire area of Southern California, the Frontier Project is a non-profit demonstration facility, which showcases a variety of Green technologies and sustainable design practices, including a LEED Platinum building, water-efficient gardens, a green roof, and a rainwater harvesting system.


csi-ksu2Collecting irrigation data onsite

While on site, Jessica and Elise met with project Landscape Architect Claire Latané from EPTDESIGN, who gave them a guided tour of the Frontier Project’s landscape, explaining in detail all of its sustainable features. Claire also discussed the project’s history, and provided an in-depth overview of the design and implementation process, while illuminating some valuable lessons learned. In collaboration with Shelley Cirrito, the Public Affairs Representative of the Cucamonga Valley Water District, they were able to collect data on the irrigation system, as well as the number of visitors and educational programs offered by the Frontier Project since its opening in 2009.

csi-ksu1Elise and Claire sift through project records at EPT Design in Pasadena, CA.

The researchers also spent a day at the EPTDESIGN office in Pasadena. Claire arranged for team K-State to give a presentation to the in-house studio staff (and remotely to Irvine staff) about LAF’s Landscape Performance Series. Jessica highlighted the Case Study Briefs and CSI program, and discussed her methodology for identifying and quantifying landscape performance benefits (developed from her participation in CSI-2011).  Many great questions and discussion points came about afterwards in a collaborative dialogue, focusing on how landscape performance could and/or should be incorporated into the design process.

While in LA, the K-State team met up with Barry Lehrman, the CSI Research Fellow from Cal Poly Pomona, who took them on a guided tour of the Pomona campus and the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies, as well as to various sites around downtown Los Angeles. It was a great opportunity to exchange stories about landscape performance, and to share insights about the Case Study Investigation processes.

The visit to California not only gave the K-State team great clarity about the design and implementation of the Frontier Project, but it offered them opportunity for an engaging dialogue between practitioners and other academics about the future of landscape performance.

Professor Jessica Canfield and student Research Assistant Elise Fagan are participating in LAF’s 2012 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to quantify the landscape performance benefits at three project sites.

Teaching Stewardship in Childhood Education

By Mark Storie, BLA, Byoung-Suk Kweon, PhD, PLA, and Christopher D. Ellis, PhD, PLA, ASLA

csi-umd1Our Case Study Investigation (CSI) research team at the University of Maryland is currently investigating landscape performance benefits of K-12 school environments. One site that we are studying is the Willow School in Gladstone, New Jersey. Teachers at the school actively look for ways to use the landscape in their class for teaching.

School hallways are probably one of the best places to view the evidence of environmental education. During our school visit, we had the opportunity to meet with second grade teacher Peter Parker who gave us a brief tour of his classroom and explained how his class uses the campus landscape and sustainable features in subjects like history, science, and English. Looking at the student work that was featured throughout the classroom and hallway, we could see just how involved his students are in actively studying the landscape.

Every year the second grade science class conducts field observations of the school’s constructed wetland pond. csi-umd2These findings are compiled and displayed in the hallway just outside of the classroom, showing students the increase in numbers and varieties of wetland fauna over the last 9 years which helps to shed light on the health of the wetland ecosystem.

In the English class, Mr. Parker’s students learn the functions of the school’s wastewater system while writing short descriptions of how the system works. Diagrams accompany the written descriptions to help students visualize how the system functions through each step in the process.


In the history class, students uncover the history of the land by excavating 1-foot grids, much as an archaeologist would do when uncovering a historical site. Over the last 9 years, Mr. Parker’s students have compiled an impressive collection of artifacts, some dating back to pre-colonial times. Students are able to view these artifacts and make conclusions about how the land had been used previously. According to Parker, when students gain a historical perspective of the school’s site, they begin to ask deeper questions about how our culture’s relationship with the land has changed over time.

csi-umd4All students at the Willow School have opportunities to engage with the landscape. Each grade level takes part in the school’s community vegetable and fruit gardens which provide the school’s cafeteria with fresh local produce. Recycling programs in the school provide roughly 280 pounds per year of nutrient rich compost that is incorporated into the community garden.

Evidence of active engagement can also be seen in the hallway. Outside of every classroom students place their outdoor boots which are often times covered in mud on rainy days. Looking down the hallway at all the boots from the many classrooms, one can see just how many students are actively engaged in the landscape.


Professors Byoung-Suk Kweon and Christopher D. Ellis and student Research Assistant Mark Storie are participating in LAF’s 2012 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. Their case studies will quantify the benefits that school landscapes have on school children, teachers, staff, their surrounding communities, and the enivornment.