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Chatham's CSI Team: Creating a Framework for Long-Term Performance Assessment

By Katie O’Neill, Masters of Arts in Food Studies Candidate, Chatham University

csi-chatham3Historic Eden Hall Barn

As a Research Assistant in LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program, I am working with Research Fellow Molly Mehling to conduct field research at Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus. The 388-acre farm campus, nestled in the rolling hills north of Pittsburgh, is surrounded by various residential neighborhoods and schools in Pine Richland Township. The campus was previously utilized by H.J. Heinz Company as a retreat for female factory workers. Now Chatham University is turning this historic land into an eco-campus where classes for the School of Sustainability and the Environment will be held. With this state-of-the-art campus, Chatham hopes to provide students, faculty, staff, and community members with a living and learning environment where they can immerse themselves in a naturalized setting and learn sustainable concepts through first-hand experiences.

The case study that Molly and I are working on does not follow the typical CSI model. Our situation is unique because the landscape hasn’t been developed yet and is still in the design phase. Therefore, our main objective is to create a framework for long-term performance assessment and monitoring throughout the construction, post-construction, and maintenance phases of development.

Molly and I have spent hours traversing the overgrown trails of Eden Hall’s forest, assessing streams, ecosystem biodiversity, and gaining knowledge about the diverse ecosystems and landscapes of Chatham’s new campus. We successfully obtained a grant for a weather station, which will allow us to gather baseline climatic data. We are also assembling the various materials necessary for assessing and recording the environmental baseline data. We created a partnership with the Pittsburgh Aviary, who will come to our site and sample bird populations every two weeks starting in September. My master’s thesis project is also related to this case study, and I will assess the biodiversity of native pollinators at Eden Hall Campus and create a framework for future monitoring.

csi-chatham4A student performing a biodiversity assessment

We are working to build a community of interested faculty and staff members who can continue the data collection and assessment over the 20+ year development span. Emphasizing collaboration between all invested parties has created interesting dialogue between the academic side and practitioner side, and has opened doors on both ends for cooperative work into the future as Eden Hall Campus is developed. Our CSI work will continue into the upcoming academic year with another graduate student taking over through a work study position. Through these new relationships with faculty, staff, student, and community members, we are confident that information will be gathered and utilized to monitor the social, economic, and environmental performance as Eden Hall Campus is transformed from the ground up into a sustainable campus.

Professor Molly Mehling and student Research Assistant Katie O’Neill are participating in LAF’s 2012 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and conducting field research at Chatham’s new Eden Hall Campus in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania.

An Unproven Hypothesis: The Cal Poly Pomona CSI Team's Dead End with Property Values

By Barry Lehrman, Assistant Professor and Mallory Piazolla, MLA Candidate, California State Polytechic University Pomona

The West San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood, California is a remarkable transformation of 19.5-acres of gopher-ridden, dusty and weedy powerline right-of-way into a verdant native floodplain ecosystem in a stable working-class suburban community. Situated on the western concrete bank of the 58-mile long San Gabriel River in southern Los Angeles County, the Nature Trail is the first project to realize the goals of the 2006 San Gabriel River Corridor Master Planand features a reclaimed water irrigation system, native vegetation, and 5,000 linear feet of decomposed granite trails.

csi-cpp1Mallory walks the trail with Steve Lang of MIG and Kerry Musgrove of Lakewood Recreation & Community Services Department.

Prior to the construction of the Nature Trail, several property owners had illegally encroached onto the right-of-way with fences and landscape plantings, necessitating an involved public outreach effort led by MIG. On a May site visit, we observed that many adjacent property owners had built new fences and added gates to access the trail, visibly demonstrating the value of proximity. We wondered if we could document the economic benefits of the conversion of the right-of-way into a nature trail. Even if we couldn’t prove an increase in economic value, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that the social value of the neighborhood was up thanks to the new trail and vegetation.

Hypothesis: The Nature Trail increases adjacent property values compared to the unimproved powerline right-of-way.

Since the trail is being built in three phases (Phase I was completed in 2003, Phase II opened in 2007, and Phase III is still awaiting funding), the undeveloped Phase III would be an ideal control subject for our analysis.


Data on residential property values for the streets adjacent to the three phases of the West San Gabriel Greenway Nature Trail were collected from, providing useable information for about 26 properties: 14 from Phase I, 5 from Phase II and 7 from Phase III. Los Angeles County Assessor data was reviewed but not used for our analysis as their assessed values are out-of-date and notoriously do not reflect current market conditions. To compare the properties, the cost per square foot for each property was calculated based on the estimate (Zestimate) of the current property value. This value was chosen to reduce variations caused by market fluctuations and when the homes were last sold. An ANOVA analysis comparing the cost per square foot values of the three phases was run using StatPlus.

csi-cpp2Spreadsheet used to calculate the cost per square foot for each adjacent property based on the Zestimate of the property value

Conclusion and Discussion

The West San Gabriel River Nature Trail does not provide a statistically significant increase in property valuation when comparing Phases I and II to the unimproved Phase III. A false negative finding might be attributed to several factors: our crude means of analysis, the small data set (n=26), or the raw data from Zillow since Zillow may calculate home prices based on data from a wider neighborhood that obscures block-by-block variations in home prices that we sought to identify.

A more sophisticated analysis (using hedonic regression) with a larger sample that controls for the fluctuating housing market/macro-economic conditions, or that uses longitudinal data over the past decade or longer may still yet validate our hypothesis. Another possibility is that property value increases will emerge in the future as the Nature Trail’s landscape matures and people who place a premium on access to the trail seek to move into the neighborhood.

The staff from the City of Lakewood embraced this last possibility on our August 2 site visit. They observed that there is an ongoing demographic shift from the original homeowners who bought houses in the 1960s and 70s to an influx of younger (and more active) families. We discussed conducting a survey of the neighborhood asking about perceived values for the Greenway. The city may undertake such a survey in the future if there are specific uses for the results that justify the effort and expense.

There is a large body of research on the economic benefits provided by parks and landscape amenities. The theory of Landscape Urbanism is even based on this premise — that Central Park in New York City generated the intense urban vitality of the surrounding neighborhood. It is just more difficult to prove than we anticipated.

Professor Barry Lehrman, with Graduate Research Assistants Mallory Piazzola, Edna Robidas, and Eric Haley are participating in LAF’s 2012 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to quantify the landscape performance benefits at four project sites around metropolitan Los Angeles. Professor Lehrman is the director of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Centennial Project at Cal Poly Pomona.

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.