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CSI: I Know a Guy (or Gal)...

By Michele Palmer, Lecturer, Department of Landscape Architecture, Cornell University

The true complexity of evaluating the perfomance of landscape architecture projects first became clear to me while attending the presentations about LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program at the 2014 CELA conference in Baltimore, and frankly I was a bit overwhelmed. But like any complex task, it seemed that breaking it down to separate tasks and knowing where to seek help was the key to making all of the work. My research assistant Muj Powell and I are not biologists, social scientists, civil engineers or soil scientists, but there was a good chance that we could find all of those disciplines and many more among my colleagues at Cornell University. As we sought out assistance, many of those conversations led to the statement “I know a guy”… or frequently a gal. 

The process of recruiting began when our team attended the client kick-off meeting for the Nevin Welcome Center case study at the Cornell Plantations. We were fortunate to have the University Landscape Architect, David Cutter, present with great enthusiasm for our project.  He listened to the discussion about the benefits and then suggested we meet with researchers he knew throughout the university who were studying various topics such as soil health, pollinators, the functioning of bio-retention filters, small mammal habitat and more. 

csi-cornell01Lauren McPhillps, graduate student in Biological and Environmental Enginnering, sets up water sampling.

Not all of these contacts proved to be fruitful, but those that have are enriching the experience and strengthening our research. It became clear in meeting these researchers that they were scientists. While we’re not, our broad, outwardly-focused training as landscape architects allows us to have intelligent conversations with a broad range of disciplines. We feel strongly that the collaborations are leading to solid case studies and new methodologies that can hopefully be applied to future case studies.

One such collaboration was conducted with Dr. Nina Bassuk who leads the Urban Horticulture Institute.  She and Professor Peter Trowbridge have been studying the benefits of improving planting soil with compost and mulch. A simple regime of initially improving soil with compost followed by annual mulching has been shown to have multiple benefits including at least doubling active carbon in soil, increasing sequestration potential as well as improving plant growth. Nina has helped us take soil samples which are currently being processed. Since many filter practice installations follow the same regime, we believe that we can extrapolate the potential benefits to other studies.  

Another soil scientist, Todd Walters, and graduate student Lauren McPhillps have been studying water quality basin function and conducting research on greenhouse gas emissions and anions at the Nevin Center and other locations on the campus. They have agreed to share their past research and conduct water quality sampling to see if the filter practices function as expected.

csi-cornell02Research Assistant Muj Powell talks surveys with Justin Kondrat, a horticulture intern at the Plantations.

We’ve had cross pollination among our projects as well. While discussing environmental benefit studies with Liz Walker of EcoVillage Inc., she mentioned Cornell Doctoral candidate Laura Russo, an EcoVillage resident who is studying bees as pollinators. Laura met with us to discuss strategies for conducting insect counts.

At the Plantations, staff have been remarkably helpful and led us to Director of Education, Sonja Skelly who has a background in social science and has been extremely helpful in critiquing our plan for surveying visitors. She had insights on how to get at the information we really want to know and how best to order questions. 

In a university the size of Cornell, it is virtually impossible to grasp the breadth of research being conducted, but these personal, word-of-mouth referrals have led us down paths we would not likely have considered, broadening our studies, increasing the rigor, and enriching the already rewarding experience of conducting the case studies.

Research Fellow Michele Palmer and student Research Assistant Muj Powell are participating in LAF’s 2014 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. They are working to evaluate and document the performance of three exemplary landscape projects in Upstate New York.

Good Ol’ Sun-Fearing People and the Social Life of Cool Urban Spaces

By Justin Earl, MLA Candidate; Dylan Stewart, MLA; Ryan Brown, MLA Candidate; Taner R. Ozdil, PhD, Associate Professor; and James Richards, Associate Professor, Program in Landscape Architecture, School of Architecture, University of Texas at Arlington

You could say that the people in Texas welcome the summer with a healthy dose of dread. During the summer here, the sun is not your friend. Urbanites avoid outdoor activity during the hottest parts of the day, and every square foot of shade is a precious commodity.

Aversion to the summer sun and heat is one of the biggest hindrances to Texans buying into the possibility of successful outdoor urban spaces. Naysayers will tell you no one here wants to be outside in the summer unless they have to be. However, in recent years a few landscape architectural projects in Fort Worth and Dallas have taken direct aim at the challenge and have created public landscapes very sensitive to people’s needs for a cooling atmosphere during the hottest months.

This summer, our Case Study Investigation (CSI) research team, in partnership with two design firms (Michael Vergason Landscape Architects and SmithGroupJJR), is working to measure the benefits of two such projects. The team has been happy to find that there are a lot of undeterred folks out at the sites just having fun. While investigating the strong economic and environmental performance of the sites, the team is most keen on exploring  social life by surveying users’ opinions and spending several days mapping and recording on each site to determine what is attracting and retaining the people who utilize these spaces.

Sundance Square Plaza in Fort Worth was designed by Michael Vergason Landscape Architects and is the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization that has been going strong for the past 30 years. 32-foot-high sculptural umbrellas and a bosque of native Cedar Elms provide comfortable shade for sitting and people-watching, while a programmable play fountain and a wave fountain are magnets for energetic children. Al fresco dining for popular cafés on two sides of the plaza as well as a stage for performances draw plenty of visitors to contribute to the ‘sidewalk ballet.’ During our site observation days, we are closely tracking people’s activities on the plaza to understand where visitors seem to congregate and feel comfortable, while taking area temperature readings to determine how the microclimates of the plaza differ from other areas downtown.

csi-utaThe UT Arlington team enjoys the evening shade after a full day of observations at Sundance Square.

AT&T Performing Arts Center: Elaine and Charles Sammons Park, designed by SmithGroupJJR, is the central outdoor open space of the Dallas Arts District. It features the Winspear Opera House’s large protruding shade structure, which provides comfortable dappled shade near a water skin reflecting pool and swaying drifts of native and adapted ornamental grasses and wildflowers. While digital models for shadow studies are in the works, our team is conducting test runs of our observation strategies for the site. So far the most common activity for park users has been taking photographs of the park and the surrounding architecture, with length of stay on the site averaging 14.5 minutes. Of the people who stopped and took advantage of the plentiful seating options in the park, 100% sat in the shaded area.

Our team is working daily to research and document the environmental and economic benefits of the two sites while accumulating responses from our online surveys. We still have many hours of site observation to conduct over the next few weeks and look forward to discovering how both plazas respond to Texas’ summer climate and provide people with enjoyable outdoor environments. 

Research Fellows Taner R. Ozdil and James Richards and student Research Assistants Justin Earl, Dylan Stewart, and Ryan Brown are participating in LAF’s 2014 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to document the performance of two exemplary landscape projects in hot, sunny Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.

New LAF Program Manager

arianna-katharinePassing the Program Manager torch: Arianna and Katharine

Katharine Burgess, AICP, is entering her final week as Program Manager with LAF. Katharine has received a prestigious Bosch Fellowship and will soon depart for Berlin, Germany. She is one of just 15 young professionals selected to participate in this distinguished transatlantic initiative, which recently recognized built environment policy as an area of interest. Bosch Fellows are placed as consultants at leading public or private institutions in Germany and participate in professional seminars, where they meet and exchange ideas with key figures across Germany and Europe. We’re excited for Katharine and this opportunity and hope that she will continue to promote high-performance landscapes wherever this next stage of her career takes her. Viel Glück!

We are pleased to announce that Arianna Koudounas has joined LAF to take the Program Manager reins. Arianna comes to us from Partners for Livable Communities and brings five years of experience in program development and management, stakeholder facilitation, technical writing, fundraising, and outreach. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies and Philosophy and is currently pursuing a professional Masters of Science in Urban and Regional Planning at Georgetown University. Welcome, Arianna!

Sustainable Destination: Seattle - Trip Report From a City That Takes Risks

By Shannon “Miko” Mikus, Winner of LAF’s 2013 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes

Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, suggested that, “If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” Seattle, Washington is a very unusual city because it does take risks, and this seems to be at the heart of its sustainable nature.

A sustainable city does more than implement curbside water infiltration and set up a complete streets program. Seattle does these things, but it does them because its people understand these actions in a wider context that accomplishes more than just supporting eco services. People in Seattle take risks and think sustainably, so sustainable things happen, proving that taking the risks is the foundation of serving a community in perpetuity.

Visiting Seattle was more than I had hoped for when I entered LAF’s Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes last year. As a father and MLA student at the University of Georgia, finding the time and means for a trip like this is a huge challenge. My small risk led to a dream get-away and fantastic educational opportunity to see some of Seattle’s top landscape architecture projects with the designers themselves.  

After arriving at SEATAC airport under overcast skies, my son, Tanner, and I  took the Link transit to the Sheraton Hotel, then walked to REI and bought rain jackets — just in case. We noted that Seattle’s comfortable walkability and biking mania, coupled with a wide variety of people, art, music, technology, and businesses, made the city feel like our hometown of Athens, Georgia on steroids. Few other cities encourage intellectual risk-taking to this degree, on this scale, mixing arts, design, business, and science while somehow binding it into a “community”.

On the second day, our distinguished tour guides Nate Cormier from SvR, Deb Gunther from Mithun, and Ken Yocum from the University of Washington showed us sites that demonstrated what Seattle is famous for: innovative streetscapes like Bell Street Park, Debbi and Paul Brainerd’s IslandWood outdoor learning school, and Richard Haag’s light touch on the lush, vibrantly green native forests in Bloedel Reserve. The guides’ intimate understandings of social, historical, ecological, and design factors made the tours revealing and meaningful. To me, this day made it clear that Seattle has been, for many decades, a place whose people revere the land and find strength in being a community and that strength allows them to take risks in defining what actions must come next.

seattle1Touring the Gates Foundation Headquarters landscape

Jennifer Guthrie and Julie Parrett started our third day in Olympic Sculpture Park, explaining the history of the park’s conception, in which Seattle families wanted to give something exceptional back to their city. The idea of giving back resonated throughout our trip. Bernie Alonzo joined us at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Headquarters (Gustafson Guthrie Nichol) and explained that the LEED Platinum facility is located in what used to be a low, boggy backwater. When the Gates family started their charitable foundation, they chose Seattle as its headquarters, resolving to set a high standard not just for their organization’s work, but for their facility. Bernie pointed out choices that show thoughtful design and patient execution like paving design, vegetated water features, materials, and incorporating site history. 

Bob McGarvey from Northwest Playground Equipment Inc., joined us for a delicious lunch at the Plum Bistro.  We talked about American playgrounds and risky play (my Master’s Thesis subject), and discussed the landscape architect’s role in sustainable cities. As stimulating as the discussion was, I was not ready for the eye-popping display we experienced next.

Tanner loves penguins, and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo has the world’s best penguin habitat, in my opinion. Monica Lake (Woodland Park Zoo) and Jim McDonough (formerly of Studio Hanson/Roberts) showed us the unique features like the multi-stage, naturally filtered, geothermal controlled, close-loop, no waste aquarium system! These, along with superb attention to detail and program (Biscayne Group), set a new standard. Getting to touch a penguin chick made this the best zoo visit ever! Monica told us to watch for the tiger exhibit that would be starting construction next year.

seattle2Tanner, Miko, and Richard Haag, FASLA at Gas Works Park

Truly moved by the zoo experience, we followed Seattle’s hills down to Lake Union for our final tour. Since my first year at UGA, I have wanted to talk to the designer of Gasworks Park. Richard Haag does not disappoint. It was a privilege to hear him tell the stories of the teams that were built, the issues that were confronted, and the risks that were weighed on both sides. Standing on Kite Hill watching the throngs of happy park-goers, knowing that toxic waste and ancient bacteria were slowly battling beneath our feet, it struck me that Seattle is a city that “grows” people who want to do what is right on scales that affect and respect something bigger than themselves, and who take risks to strive to serve whomever will come next. That is sustainability.

My deepest thanks go to the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the distinguished tour guides, and all of the sweepstakes sponsors: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, SvR Design Company, Mithun, EverGreen Escapes, Northwest Playground Equipment, Landscape Forms, Sheraton Seattle Hotel, and IslandWood.

LAF’s 5th Annual Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes raised over $10,000 to support the foundation’s research and scholarship programs. Miko Mikus won the grand prize: a one-of-a-kind trip to Seattle with tours of 7 acclaimed landscape architecture projects led by the designers themselves. He took the trip in late May 2014.

Coming Soon: LPS Collections

collectiondetailTo bring the concept of landscape performance to new strategic audiences, promote next-generation infrastructure, and enhance the experience for the 60,000+ unique users, LAF is developing a new website to house its Landscape Performance Series (LPS) and related resources.

The new website will feature “Collections”, themed groups of LPS content curated by LAF and leading thinkers, as a new way to organize and share content. When the site goes live in November, the Collections will be fully searchable and follow the design at right. But in the meantime, we’ve put some together right here in our blog to give you a preview of this exciting new content.

So…. <drumroll>, here are our first Collections. We’ll update this list as we put together more over the coming months.

  • The Case for Street Trees
    Need to advocate for more street trees, better design tree space design, or preservation of existing trees? Here are some useful precedents and research.
  • Small But Mighty
    It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of space to have a big impact. Here we showcase some of the smallest projects in the LPS along with Fast Facts on the benefits of even modest amounts of green.

If you have ideas for themes you’d like to see addressed in the Collections, please send them to And be sure to mark your calendars for when the new Landscape Performance Series is slated to launch in November!