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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Streets -- Dwelling Place for the Common Good

By Dustin Smith, 2013 University Olmsted Scholar

The estranged relationship with the street exhibited by the modern man’s frivolous attempts at engaging it for means other than conveyance has largely meant the abandonment of American public life. Contemporary placemaking ideologies that imagine there can be infinite deconstruction and reorganization of the basic typological inventory of urban elements have been equally damaging regarding the role of the street as a public place and the street grid as a continuum of public space. This is disconcerting for the common good, which requires a public realm to bind us all together in the realization of a shared sense of dwelling. 

settlement-patternsHistoric versus Modern settlement pattern. Graphic reproduced by author from Stephen Marshall’s Streets and Patterns.

My ensuing thesis investigation explored the degenerative role of the street in the public sphere of urban American landscapes, a causation of the dogmas and aims of Modernist design, planning, and management of the land. While the study’s methodology involved the critical examination of prominent theorists, an examination of phenomenological, morphological, and social factors related to the form and function of urban streets and the street grid was conducted in Annapolis, Maryland. The idea was to document a series of personal observations, narratives, photographs and diagrams to grapple with the everyday visual cues, patterns, and social evidence of streets reflective of the common good; in other words, the commitment to a life shared with others.

annapolisHistoric Annapolis offers an urban pattern unique to colonial American town and city planning. Its resilience against urbanization coupled with a civic structure cognizant of place-making values related to the ancient notion of the polis and civitas made Annapolis an ideal setting to explore the public character of urban streets. An urban setting may not be suitable for all people, but there was once a time when our towns and cities were made to connect people to important civic structures. The “City on the Severn” is a charming example of such planning, and of people who valued its ideal.

annapolis-gridThe beauty of Annapolis’ streets begins with its grid, a plan that finds its inspiration in the European ideals of Baroque planning. Atop central Annapolis are two great circles, the State Circle and the Church Circle, and from them a grid of diagonally radiating streets laid over the naturally falling topography offers dramatic visual axes and vistas. The natural limit of the Annapolis peninsula has controlled the expansion of the grid outward, creating a cozily dense block structure with greater ease of walkability and comprehension of the street’s connections to public places.

The town possesses a strong urban character and visual unity, which results from a diverse range of street typologies, each uniquely identified by architectural elements, pedestrian sidewalk space, and a heterogeneous mix of mature trees. And while they reflect the charming aesthetic tale of time passed, it is the unwavering love and use of these streets by citizens that make them so much more exciting.

If we are to ever move out from beneath the shadows and plumes of automobiles back towards an urban form rich with picturesque scenes of streets enacted by the swinging hands and feet of people changing postures and the fleeting shapes and colors of faces, garments, and produce, we should be cognizant of our quick abandonment of the patterns and devices that make places like Annapolis great.

In May, Dustin Smith graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is now a designer at Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia, where he continues to explore and draw upon his passion for great streets in professional practice.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Case Studies in Multifunctional Infrastructure

By Zachary Barker, 2013 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

There are few places in the world where infrastructure is more vital to human existence than in the Netherlands. The country sits at the northwest corner of the Great European Plain, and almost two-thirds of the country is at or below sea level. Over centuries, controlling water along rivers and the North Sea have allowed the Dutch to methodically reclaim land, first for farming and later for settlement. Dikes, levees, dams and other infrastructure have become fundamental parts of the Dutch landscape.

Amsterdam, as the urban core of the Netherlands, offers several different transit typologies, including elevated train tracks, underground metro, at-grade trams, multi-modal streets, and urban highways. This infrastructure has had a drastic impact on its surroundings. I traveled to Amsterdam in the fall of my senior year and spent three months documenting the benefits and complexities of three case study locations that reflect a synergistic approach to landscape, infrastructure, and civic space. The case studies included a hybrid office space, a linear park, and an intricate stormwater management system.

Tussen de Bogen, the hybrid office space, translates to “Between the Arches” in English. The translation is quite literal, as the site is located under the arches of an elevated rail corridor on the northwest side of Amsterdam. Approximately 250,000 people a day travel over the offices below on their way to or from Centraal Station. The site exemplifies how transit infrastructure can contribute to the densification of an urban environment instead of dispersing density, the usual scenario.


churchill-500wChurchill-laan, the linear park case study, illustrates how transit infrastructure can create public space in a dense and historic urban environment. The site is surrounded by transportation infrastructure on all sides, but still manages to be a highly utilized public space.

The intricate stormwater management case study is located in Rietlandpark, a submerged tram station. Rietlandpark Station is designed to decentralize stormwater management issues by holding excess water under its platforms. The station is an example of how landscape infrastructure can abate stress on traditional infrastructure systems.


From the three case studies, I came to understand and appreciate the value that flexibility, decentralization, and multidimensionality can bring to an infrastructure project. These Dutch sites are in stark contrast to many American infrastructure projects of the mid- to late 20th Century that were engineered primarily to serve vehicles. The trend for contemporary landscape infrastructure is to become decentralized and multimodal. Multifunctional infrastructure conserves land, shares the financial load of its development, restores damaged natural ecologies, reinforces healthy transit options, and provides public access to vital open space. I think that landscape architects are uniquely poised to expand this trend because the infrastructure challenges of today call for sophisticated systems thinking in which landscape architects are trained and tested.

Zachary Barker received a BLA from The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in May, graduating with honors. His thesis Dutchscape: Analyzing Landscape Infrastructure in Amsterdam, The Netherlands was selected as the university-wide Honors Thesis Prize winner for 2013. Zach is working as a landscape designer at LRSLAstudio in Philadelphia.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Blurring the Infrastructural Realm

By Tina Chee, 2013 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Los Angeles, a city whose evolution and iconic nature is inextricably linked to infrastructure, is transforming. Today, we witness a renaissance: the build-out of a mass public transportation system by 2030, nearly 100 years after the first freeway parkway was built. With this third wave of transportation infrastructure, how does landscape participate in the implementation of a vast network of subway stations?

This design proposal examines the potential of the westward expansion of the Purple Line subway as the opportunity to literally piggyback a landscape infrastructure on transportation; a landscape that creates ecological corridors, which aggregate the various green fragments in the city, and transforms monoculture clusters into multi-modal activity nodes with landscape emanating from the intersections. Employing public surveys, live interviews, and field work, the project began with an investigation and analysis of the existing pedestrian conditions using the twelve quality criteria for pedestrian landscapes developed by Jan Gehl, which served to inform the design.

The expansiveness of this landscape challenges the boundaries of the public realm by engaging the various underutilized building fronts, setbacks, and blank walls to create an extroverted public square that engages city edges.

bif-lacmaThe form of the station creates an iconic landscape object that is spatially framed by the surrounding context, expanding it beyond property lines. The centerpiece of the station is the sloped green roof and topographic landform constructed from the reuse of excavated dirt from subway tunneling. The roof landform becomes a high point, a place for observation and reflection, that mediates between the hardscape of the urban street and an intimate softscaped forest. The berm form acts as a sound buffer and barrier from the main boulevard traffic noise; it also gives the landscape elevation for gravity fed irrigation.

The center of the roof is a sun lawn surrounded by a native meadow. The surface of the roof landform is dimpled with skylights and a series of undulating mounds that form temporal rain water basins, which create an extended seasonal and visual interest. Rain water not completely absorbed or captured flows down the topographic form irrigating other vegetated areas until it is ultimately collected and filtered in rain gardens at the base.

The sides of the landform are made of gabion walls which filter storm water and become terraces for informal gatherings, a series of meandering ramps for a stroll under the expansive canopy of oak trees, or as tiered plaza steps to observe and engage street life. The west side becomes a natural gathering place for public performances by repurposing the blank exterior museum wall and shaded environment as a backdrop for public events. The south side of the landform scales down to an intimate quiet neighborhood urban park forested with oak trees and dappled light, creating an enjoyable shaded place during summer months. The surrounding meandering pavement pattern and placement of seating planters induce happenstance occurrences, which culminate at the tiered plaza steps.


The bike and pedestrian paths cross and intersect to encourage public life exchange while providing places to sit and congregate. These paths continue to meander, weave, and connect three urban blocks engaging existing building stoops and landscaped setbacks as part of this public realm. The streets between blocks become shared streets where pedestrians and vehicles occupy the same paved surface. Public space can expand and contract for festivals and street events. The boundaries between the public and private realms blur to weave a dynamic urban space that engages city edges and urban life.

In May, Tina Chee graduated from the University of Southern California, where she was awarded the 2013 ASLA Honor Award for her overall body of work. This summer, she completed her research fellowship on infrastructural landscapes, traveling within the U.S. and Western Europe. She is the design leader transforming an underutilized alley into a performative stormwater gallery and recreational green space for low-income, inner city youth. She is currently the lead designer and project manager on several projects at SWA in Los Angeles.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Health, Wellbeing, and Design as Preventative Medicine

By Leann Andrews, 2013 National Olmsted Scholar

Today’s health issues are unprecedented in their scale and severity. Nearly half of Americans have a chronic illness, 67% are overweight or obese, and $2.3 trillion are spent on medical costs each year. Our natural resources, along with the ecosystem services they provide, are rapidly depleting, affecting local and global climates, resilience in the face of natural disasters, and air, soil, and water quality. If trends continue, today’s youth will be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Furthermore, with rapid urbanization and population expansion, much of the world is struggling to address basic health needs, such as access to safe water and sanitation. While these issues are daunting, they provide new opportunities for landscape architects to play a critical role in the health conversation by addressing problems “upstream” in our designed environment.

As the 2013 National Graduate Olmsted Scholar, I spent this past summer working with an informal ‘slum’ community outside of Lima, Peru to explore these potentials. I collaborated with a small group of health researchers and designers to implement my capstone project: home gardens designed to improve nutrition, increase mobility, reduce illness, improve mental health and wellbeing, and contribute to economic stability and social infrastructure in this distressed urban community.peru-workshop

Working closely with community leaders and local experts, our team led a series of participatory workshops to help 29 residents envision, design, construct, maintain, and sustain personalized gardens for their homes. Financial efforts focused not only on plants, but also on long-term infrastructural elements such as water-conserving wicking beds, vertical trellises for growing in tight spaces, and decorative yet functional fences to allow roaming chickens, ducks and dogs to co-exist with the gardens.

peru-homegardenThe project centered around education and skill-building among the residents to encourage sustainable practices, craft, project ownership, and community empowerment. Thanks to a continued eight-year partnership with the community, this project also links with other ongoing local efforts including fog harvesting, composting, greenspace, ecological restoration, climate change, public health, and artistic beautification.

This project will also be studied for its effect on mental wellbeing for the residents. The team collected baseline data this summer, and plans to follow-up with a 6-month and one-year evaluation, contributing to a growing body of evidence-based-health and evidence-based-design research to inform future designers, health practitioners, and decision-makers.

Additionally, this opportunity as the National Graduate Olmsted Scholar has allowed me to begin an interdisciplinary PhD program at the University of Washington where I will continue to explore how design professionals can be leaders in the health conversation through implementing design as preventive medicine in our everyday landscapes. I hope to continue working on design and research projects that will expand the understanding of ‘public health and safety’ to include the full richness of health and wellbeing as landscape performance and will assert landscape architects on the leading edge of problem solving to address the complex local and global issues of today.

Leann Andrews recently graduated from the University of Washington with a graduate degree in Landscape Architecture and Global Health and has initiated an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Washington to research the role that design can have on human and ecological health.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Restoring Hetch Hetchy, a Mountain Temple

By Carson Cooper, 2013 University Olmsted Scholar

A new era of dam decommissioning has commenced. Few dams are built and even fewer are justifiable because of the egregious environmental damage they cause. Destroying a dam and draining a reservoir might be considered victories for restoring our world to a resilient future; however, as the water recedes, a new obstacle emerges: the newly exposed valley floor. Typically, these reclaimed landscapes are in terrible condition because the soil is low in nutrients, microbial activity, and moisture availability, and it usually does not have a consistent soil profile. These factors, and others, hinder natural succession of native plants, which leaves the new landscape vulnerable to invasion from exotic species.

In the glorious mountain tops of the Sierras within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, there is a place called Hetch Hetchy. It was once a beautiful and thriving valley that bountifully provided food, raiment, and shelter for the Miwok Indians. Hetch Hetchy Valley was considered to be one of the most diverse and unique ecosystems in the world. John Muir described it as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples.” However, in 1913, the pure and precious Toulumne River was dammed by the O’Shaughnessy Dam. The resulting reservoir buried the ancient valley with 300,000 acre-feet of water and became an integral part of an aqueduct system that provided San Francisco and neighboring cities — all of which are nearly 200 miles away — both water and power.

For decades, heated discussions of politics and environmental ethics concerning Hetch Hetchy have reverberated city halls and city walls. Although many people are being informed about the complexities revolving around Hetch Hetchy, the discussion is truly just beginning.

hetch-damclimbingDam Climbing: The future of the obsolete O'Shaughnessy Dam structure

My senior thesis is intended to be a tool and instrument in the discussion. Through intensive analysis, I developed a master plan for a newly exposed Hetch Hetchy Valley once the O’Shaughnessy Dam is obsolete and breached. My thesis considers the extreme complexities within the historical context of the project and explores (lightly) the analysis involved in justifying the removal of the dam and the support pushing for restoration. It investigates the processes involved in restoring a newly drained reservoir through theoretical approaches, case studies, and precedents. It develops appropriate design programming that will highlight the beauty of the historical landscape and offer new recreational opportunities, all while maintaining the integrity of National Park initiatives and the serenity that should exist within a mountain temple.

Through my analysis and design interventions, I realized that a new palette of programming tools is necessary to accomplish the project goals and to have far less environmental impact than nearby Yosemite Valley. I proposed free mass transit from a neighboring camp to drastically decrease car traffic, pollution, and impervious pavement. Therefore, all site interventions and attractions would only be accessible through pedestrian means like walking and cycling. I developed an intricate path system that would provide many access routes to popular locations. I designated walk-in only camp site locations so that Yosemite National Park could accommodate more overnight users, which would increase revenue while alleviating overcrowding in Yosemite Valley. I clustered development in certain areas based on programs and activity use to increase likability, identity, and circulation. Lastly, I tailored the design to lower-impact types of recreation like white water rafting, zip lining, hang gliding, dam and rock climbing, fishing, swimming, mural art, and hiking.

hetch-programRestored Hetch Hetchy Valley, showing development clusters and programming

Through restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a new and viable ecosystem can be created for both wildlife and humans to experience. This project might also be used as a tool in the creation of resilient principles for our future and an instrument in the dam decommissioning movement. There is no better way to foster human health and to promote the goals of the National Park Service than to restore an ancient “mountain temple” that will manifest the handiwork of both God and humanity.

In May, Carson Cooper graduated from the University of California, Davis with a Bachelors in Landscape Architecture. He is now pursuing a Masters in Landscape Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he intends to focus his studies on new and innovative stormwater management in the urban context and investigate successful design solutions for restoring ecological processes to highly disturbed landscapes like brownfields and post-dam valleys.