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CSI: Preparing Researchers for Practice

by Rachel Guinn, MLA Candidate and Mary Pat Mattson,Studio Assistant Professor, College of Architecture, Illinois Institute of Technology

LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program gives emerging landscape architects an opportunity to gain knowledge about professional practice from a wholly new perspective. IIT’s Mary Pat Mattson interviewed Research Assistant Rachel Guinn about her experience.

What interested you in becoming a researcher for LAF’s Case Study Investigation program?

csi-iit1Rachel examines the vertical growing wall of the Museum of Science and Industry's Smart Home exhibit.

I was interested in participating in CSI to learn about what landscapes do after they are installed, and I was especially excited to study local landscapes here in Chicago. Far too often, landscape is talked about as a static thing, so the opportunity to investigate the “living, breathing” aspects of landscapes really interested me.

Were you already familiar with concepts and methods of ‘landscape performance’?

What I have learned from CSI is how diverse and infinite landscape performance is, which makes it very difficult to quantify concisely. Ecologic benefits are complex simply because ecologic processes do not stop at property boundaries, so understanding the effects of and influences on a landscape project is quite an undertaking. Social benefits are notoriously difficult to quantify because so many effects of landscape are qualitative and subjective. Economic benefits may appear to be simple, but given the diverse ways that projects and their maintenance get funded and the many people involved, it is not always clear where and what the costs of sustainable landscapes are. CSI has given me an appreciation of what an endeavor it is to study the benefits of landscapes, but how valuable that information is.

What did you find most rewarding in your research process? Were there any surprises or big hurdles to overcome?

The most rewarding aspect has been getting to thoroughly “know” projects by talking with the people who helped them come about, coming to understand the lifespan (up till now) of the projects — how they began as design goals, how they have changed over time as needs altered and issues cropped up. It has given me an even deeper appreciation of the time and effort that developers, landscape architects, architects, landscape contractors, invest in creating landscapes that function at the highest levels.

Being on the “interviewer” side of conversations was difficult. As a design student, I was used to being asked questions about a project, but turning the tables and asking the questions requires understanding on a whole other level. It was so important to be prepared to ask the right questions to maximize the outcome of interviews.

Can you describe something that links the three projects you’ve studied? 

csi-iit2Rachel confirms plant species in the spiral garden at Advocate Lutheran hospital.

All of the projects we studied in CSI used landscape as an educational tool, whether through stewardship (63rd Street Beach), programming (the Smart Home exhibit), or visibility of ecologic processes (Advocate Lutheran General Hospital). I think education is often part of successful projects because it engages people directly, and the more people notice their environments, the more they will care for them and ensure the project’s continued success. Learning about individuals’ stewardship for these respective projects has been a remarkable and rewarding discovery.

Is there a project, or aspect of a project, you wish you could continue to explore?

I have read about Chicago’s water quality issues and seen beach closures for years. While researching 63rd Street Beach, I found a plethora of research conducted at this location, which has been known for its particularly high levels of E.coli. Sources of the pollution range from sewer outflows to seagull populations to human use. It would be great to continue to study how, if at all, the creation of dunes at the beach has helped to improve water quality — if the naturalized landscape makes people more aware of their impacts on the environment, if the grass has helped filter pollutants, or if the dune habitat has truly helped to reduce gull numbers.

How has the experience affected you as a young landscape architect? How do you anticipate taking these experiences into future practice?

Being a research assistant has been a fantastic step into real-world projects, clients, and firms. It has been great to dive into these projects, their histories and how they are performing. I now see the value in being able to talk about landscape in terms of quantifiable performance benefits, and the importance of connecting academic and professional practices to study projects after installation.

Research Fellow Mary Pat Mattson and student Research Assistant Rachel Guinn are participating in LAF’s 2013 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. They have been evaluating and documenting the performance of three Chicago-area landscape projects.

Rethinking Rivers: Exploring the Benefits of Ecologically-Based River Management

By Shanna Atherton, MLA-EP candidate, University of California, Berkeley

Restoring natural processes to degraded or heavily managed river systems while respecting human needs is no easy feat, but this summer the Case Study Investigation (CSI) program gave our research team the opportunity to look at three projects that have done just that. Ranging in scope from 35 to 1,011 acres, the restoration projects along Tassajara Creek, the Colorado River, and the Napa River clearly illustrate that through collaboration and a willingness to think outside the box, ecological function can be promoted without sacrificing flood control needs or water rights, and that impressive social, economic, and environmental benefits can be realized along the way.

Tassajara Creek Restoration Project

csi-berkeley1Located in the heart of the Livermore Valley east of San Francisco Bay, this 35-acre creek restoration project was designed to halt channel incision and manage flooding in the newly developed area of eastern Dublin. The project was conceived as an alternative to the traditional trapezoidal flood control channels prolific in the valley, an alternative that promotes habitat diversity and natural geomorphic processes within the riparian corridor while maintaining its flood management capabilities, increasing the aesthetic value of the channel and serving as an amenity to nearby residents. Our research team set out to quantify the social and economic benefits that such an alternative could provide to local residents and the district charged with maintaining the site. We observed public use of the project’s features over a weekend in the summer, including a local trail that extends the regional trail network and a low-flow crossing that provides access to a regional park. We also analyzed property values in communities adjacent to the creek, comparing these values to communities near a trapezoidal flood control channel, and we worked with the local flood control district to estimate the lowered long-term maintenance costs of the restored channel compared to those of a trapezoidal channel.

Yuma East Wetlands Restoration

Located near the historic downtown area of Yuma, Arizona along 350 acres of the lower Colorado River, the Yuma East Wetland project transformed a degraded wetland — once a site of illegal dumping and transient encampments — into a refuge for many threatened and endangered species. Recreational amenities provide much needed access for locals to the river, while an innovative water reuse plan minimizes the need to draw on tightly guarded water rights. This project is a hallmark of what can be achieved when divergent constituents of a community band together to re-envision public open space.

Napa River Flood Control Project

The Napa River Flood Control Project was part of a monumental effort in the 1990s to reconceive the river’s flood control strategy on a regional scale. Adhering to the ‘living river’ principles developed by an impressive community coalition, the city of Napa has implemented project phases along a 7-mile stretch of river, resulting in the restoration of 1,011 acres of habitat that meet the primary project aim of protecting the functionality of the river’s ecological systems while providing flood protection for many Napa residents. Though the project’s goal of 100-year flood protection will not be met until the final phases of the project have been completed, many environmental, economic, and social benefits are already being realized by the community today. We set out to identify these benefits, reviewing vegetation and bird monitoring efforts of the completed project phases as well as employment data that illustrates the direct impact of this project on the local workforce.


Working on these projects has provided our team members with valuable insights into the many benefits that the restoration of ecological function, guided by design principles, can have on watercourses, the agencies that manage them, and the communities that border them. We hope that through our identification and exploration of these benefits, others will be inspired to explore creative solutions to complex design challenges.

Research Fellow G. Mathias Kondolf and student Research Assistants Zan Rubin and Shanna Atherton are participating in LAF’s 2013 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to document the social, environmental and economic benefits of three exemplary landscape projects in California and Arizona.

Emergent Ecologies, Alternative Aesthetics, and Public Opinions

By Paul Littleton, MLA Candidate and M. Elen Deming, PhD, Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The three projects we examined this summer through LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program  — Carmel Clay Central Park (Carmel, Indiana); Lowland Park at Milliken State Park (Detroit, MI) and The City of Ann Arbor Municipal Center (Ann Arbor, MI) — shared some common characteristics. They were all public landscapes; at different scales and contexts each created a new kind of community center; each provided ecosystem services for stormwater management; each project saved or “paid back” public resources. Also, each project adopted an ecological aesthetic that recalibrated or redefined what many users expect from public landscapes.

In a sense, each of these projects tries to teach visitors about hydrological processes by laying them bare to view. Trouble is, not everyone understands what they see. Behind the performance benefits quantified for our projects we sense there may be other social impacts to be measured. We enjoyed enthusiasm for these places by designers and clients; we also encountered a level of puzzlement and ambivalence toward public open spaces that adopt a new attitude towards nature.

A case in point is the highly innovative design at the Ann Arbor Municipal Center (AAMC). Our methodology for measuring social benefits involved a short survey asking respondents to identify their familiarity with the place (employees or visitors, level of use of various amenities, etc.), how they thought the project reflected on the city of Ann Arbor, and whether they would consider similar stormwater management techniques for their home landscapes or in other projects. The City of Ann Arbor assisted our survey process by announcing it through a public press release and installing posters with a QR (Quick response) code throughout the AAMC.

csi-ui-c1Survey poster with QR code installed in rain gardens at Ann Arbor Municipal Center.

Response level and survey depth was spectacular — 123 responses in just three weeks, more than 100 surveys fully completed, with 35 thoughtful individuals adding more comments after the survey was done. Ann Arbor obviously cares deeply about its public open space. Because public opinion was so sharply divided over the merits of the project as a whole, we wanted to share a few representative responses.

Supporters of the project said: “The designers did a good job”; “It’s great to be able to demonstrate these features to private developers when we’re trying to encourage them to consider low-impact development techniques”; “Parts of the center offer good examples to show clients considering such features in their own buildings.”

Naysayers wrote: “If city hall is trying to lead by example, they are failing. They come across as being “smarter” vs. inclusive… They force stuff vs. letting it develop out of a genuine public want”;  “these features do not improve my experience of the building and are not presented in a way that improves environmental consciousness… [T]he overall lay out removes public space in front of and on the roof of the building from public use… [as if] the city government doesn’t actually want the public to be able to gather near or around the building.” 

Some grasped issues of landscape performance: “[T]he green roof is creating habitat for bees, birds and other insects“; “I watched the big rain storm a week or so ago (2.5 inches in less than an hour); when I got to City Hall for a meeting, over 8 inches of rain water remained in the rain garden. When I left that meeting, 2 hours later, all the water was gone. That’s what rain gardens are supposed to do. I was and am impressed.”

Others missed the point: “[I]t rains so much here, I don’t think many people are very concerned about water. Maybe if we lived in a desert we’d celebrate collecting water more, but really, the whole rain garden idea seems like it will be a smelly, swampy mess and a breeding ground for West Nile virus.”

csi-ui-c2The AAMC landscape includes a green roof, rain gardens, permeable paving, and a cistern-fed fountain sculpture.

Finally, many offered the City constructive advice: “It is my perception that near to, if not all, of the hostility towards the municipal center’s rain gardens and its water feature are due to poor program execution…. I advise a clear avenue for public input and comment in the design of such installations”; “Downtowns should be for people, first. To the degree that great spaces can be built around and/or incorporate art, music, or eco-friendly educational opportunities and infrastructure, all the better.”

The big lesson from the survey is a simple correlation: people who spent a greater amount of time on the site — employees — gave more positive and insightful responses to our questions than casual visitors did. Landscape architects often try to lead innovation toward emerging value systems like sustainability, transparency, and inclusiveness. It is good to remember that building awareness (and changing taste) takes time, patience, and many, many opportunities for public dialogue.

Research Fellow Elen Deming and student Research Assistant Paul Littleton are participating in LAF’s 2013 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to evaluate the environmental, economic and social performance of three landscape projects in Michigan and Indiana.

Director Park: Observing Portland's People Plaza

By Andrew Louw, MLA/MCRP Candidate, University of Oregon

Formerly a parking lot, Simon and Helen Director Park is now a bustling urban plaza. Built over a six-level underground parking garage two blocks from the iconic Pioneer Square, the park hosts a range of amenities and activities and has become a popular destination for residents and visitors alike. In keeping with Portland’s reputation for innovative stormwater solutions, the OLIN-designed park keeps over 990,000 gallons of runoff per year from the city’s sewer system.

The forthcoming Landscape Performance Series Case Study Brief, developed by our University of Oregon research team, also draws attention to Director Park’s outstanding social benefits. Between 2010 and 2012, the actively programmed space hosted 228 events which attracted over 73,000 people. Designed to accommodate use throughout the year, Director Park attracts an average of 1495 people per day during summer months and 376 per day during Portland’s cool, wet winters.

Our research team’s time lapse video was shot on Thursday, July 18, 2013 and captures three time periods: morning setup (8:30 - 11:30am), lunch time (noon to 2pm), and evening (5pm to 8pm). The time lapse is a compilation of over 1700 still images shot every ten seconds from a six-level parking garage adjacent to the Park. Between noon and 2pm alone, the time lapse recorded over 550 different users.

Research Assistant Andrew Louw is participating in LAF’s 2013 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program along with faculty Research Fellow Roxi Thoren. They are working to document the performance benefits of three diverse projects in Portland, Oregon and Long Island New York.

Sustainability at Home: CSI Takes Its First Look at Private Single-Family Residences

By Pamela Blackmore, BLA, Christopher Binder, MLA Candidate, and Bo Yang, PhD, Assistant Professor, Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, Utah State University

Over two dozen project types are featured in the Landscape Performance Series Case Study Briefs, representing landscapes from public parks and streetscapes to plazas and even zoos. Yet, despite such a prolific range, none have documented one of the most widespread and accessible applications of sustainable design for both the general public and the professional landscape architect: the single-family home. This summer, our Case Study Investigation (CSI) research team is helping tackle this new and exciting territory by investigating three privately-owned, single-family landscapes created by the firm, Design Workshop in Aspen, Colorado.

Cascade Garden: Reinventing a Landscape with Minimal Disturbance

Can a landscape architect transform a residential lot into a completely different space without destroying existing plant material, disrupting the soil, or waiting years for new, young trees to establish? The site design for this property accomplishes exactly that by utilizing a number of simple but effective techniques that strive to create a new landscape that retains the economic, environmental, and social benefits of the landscape that had been there for years. Our investigation sought to quantify these benefits through innovative methods that include assessing the value of retained or transplanted trees, determining the advantages of siting the new home on the old home’s footprint, and understanding the habitat and water quality effects of deepening rather than expanding the pond.

Riverside Ranch: Restoring Nature and History

Restoring this brownfield site from an industrial asphalt dump to a functional wetland ecosystem was no easy task. To complete the property with a quad of historical and accurately refurbished buildings dating from the 1800s was even more challenging. While restoration was the driving principle in this design, an equally important goal was to establish trout habitat. To determine how successful the design is in creating a veritable ‘fisherman’s paradise’ we explored the streams, ponds, and riparian zones created on site, delving into questions of water quality and habitat suitability.

Capitol Valley Ranch: Creating Microclimates with Natural Energy

This high-altitude landscape was conceived of as a series of outdoor living areas that take advantage of passive solar heating and sun/shade relationships to transition seamlessly with the interior of the home, a sort of modern take on the classical indoor-outdoor relationship of the quintessential Italian villa. The primary challenge for the research team in quantifying the relative success of this design approach was measuring the various factors (temperature, wind speed, relative humidity) that contribute to human comfort levels. Our approach began with selecting 66 individual points around the property at which to measure each environmental factor, then monitoring each point three times throughout the day in order to understand which areas are most comfortable during peak use times in the morning, afternoon, and evening. After gathering the data, the team assembled the information into a GIS that plotted the relative comfort of each point on a physical map of the property, allowing for a thorough bioclimatic analysis of the landscape.


Veteran Research Fellow Bo Yang, returning Research Assistant Pamela Blackmore and newcomer graduate student Christopher Binder are participating in LAF’s 2013 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and exploring new methods to document the performance of three private residences in Aspen, Colorado.