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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Exploring Relationships Between People and Water

By Sarah Bolivar, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

Now that I am in my third and final year of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) Master of Landscape Architecture program, I think back to the query that brought me to the design field: how people manage water, a transboundary resource. In retrospect, this interest has remained constant, although I could not have imagined the various scales and issues I’d study pertaining to water. Through the GSD, I have been fortunate to examine stormwater in Nepal, the role of paths in the context of tsunami evacuation, and now, a thesis around tribal salmon harvest in the Pacific Northwest.

During the summer of 2014, with the support of the South Asia Institute and GSD Community Service Fellowship, I traveled 15 hours by plane and 16 hours by bus to Surkhet, Nepal, a verdant valley overlaid by housing, commerce, and agriculture in the subtropical Terai belt. A friend at Kopila Valley, a school serving 350 students, connected me with the managing non-profit, BlinkNow, which invited me to provide landscape design strategies for a new school complex. I led hands-on workshops so students could learn about landscape architecture and I could learn about their favorite spaces, but I struggled to find the best ways to integrate students’ voices into the project. One clear element was the monsoon season that would soon come, and with it, potential flooding or erosion throughout the school. Part of the design strategy revolved around tackling and revealing these water flows. A week after I returned to the states, a monsoon caused rivers to swell, and massive flooding coupled with landslides left hundreds without homes.

bolivar01-nepalSurkhet, Nepal (Image: Jack Cochran)

Given that Nepal is prone to earthquakes and landslides, I was eager to learn more about places that could serve as precedents for responding to natural disasters. With the financial support of the Asia Center and GSD Penny White Fund, my friend, Jessie Booth (MLA ‘16), and I traveled to low-density coastal cities in Japan, Kamaishi and Ishinomaki, both devastated by the 3/11 Tsunami. We sought to understand the role that landscape could play in supporting natural disaster preparedness. Specifically, we wondered how pedestrian evacuation paths could become imprinted in the collective memory to serve residents during emergency and non-emergency times.

bolivar02-japanCoastal infrastructure in Ishinomaki, Japan

One of the biggest takeaways was each city’s reconstruction plan did not necessarily work in tandem with neighboring cities’ plans. Each city could be broadly characterized either by a “bottom-up” or “top-down” reconstruction approach. Additionally, most affected cities are continuing to invest in structures that have a singular use and narrow lifespan, such as tetrapods and seawalls. This spring, Jessie and I will synthesize our research findings into a document we can share with our friends and partners in Japan.

Working in Japan and Nepal allowed me to be acutely aware of the challenges designers face when the site has a different cultural context than one’s own, the site is thousands of miles away, the work is pro-bono, and the work is conceived within an academic umbrella. Each of these conditions renders its own opportunities and challenges.

I reflect constantly on the politicized nature of my role as I develop a thesis around a place that is dear to me, the Salish Coast, located in the Pacific Northwest. In this region, I’ll be exploring the role that design can play in supporting salmon habitat and harvest to thereby protect indigenous sovereignty rights for the Lummi and Nooksack Nations. Given that indigenous people have been systematically oppressed through physical force and political contracts, I must understand that my language and actions are too, as my friend Elizabeth Bragg of the Blackfoot Nation would put it, “colored by colonizing practices of the past.”

bolivar03-nooksackriverNooksack River, general thesis site in the Pacific Northwest

And as I begin to develop the project, I come back to the issue of water, in this case, the hydrological conditions that affect salmon reproduction. With the guidance of my thesis advisor, Jane Hutton, and thesis cohort, I look forward to continuing to explore the relationship between people and water in all its multifaceted forms.

Sarah Bolivar is currently working on her thesis, as well as planning International Women’s Day on March 08 with the GSD Women in Design team.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Spaces of Conflict, Spaces of Opportunity

By Logan Littlefield, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

The effects of conflict on the urban landscape are far reaching and multi-faceted.

Beirut, Lebanon is a case in which the continued political instability spawned by its 15-year civil war (1975-1990) has exacerbated a physical and cultural erosion of the public realm. This has allowed areas of natural, cultural, and civic heritage to be co-opted by private luxury development, preventing them from serving as potential devices to foster social cohesion and civic identity. The unprecedented tabula rasa reconstruction of Beirut’s central district by a private development company exemplifies this condition.

My graduate thesis project, Confronting the Present: Towards a Civic Realm on Beirut’s Urban Fringe, explores the opportunities presented by peri-urban infrastructural landscapes to address this condition. To do so, my research was two-fold: an inventory of designated and spontaneous public space types in Beirut, and a rational for civic space in more unlikely spaces.

beirut01Inventory of public space types

The peri-urban Beirut River became a testing ground for a new prototype of civic space. Opportunity lies in its ambiguous ownership, neglect, infrastructural qualities, and tenuous identity as a natural feature, where an intervention is less likely to spawn gentrification. It was also consistent with inventory findings that the dominating adjacency for more informal forms of public manifestation was infrastructure.

Though the space is aesthetically unlikely, socially and demographically speaking however, it is fitting for social cohesion since, though situated in the largely Christian eastern half of Beirut, the site is located within the most prominent Armenian neighbourhoods. This community resisted taking sides during the war, making their areas relatively neutral grounds for interaction compared to other more cloistered Christian or Muslim districts. There is also increasing ethnic and religious diversity here due to affordable rents, urban migration and the influx of refugees.

The proposed design prototype deploys and hybridizes local spatial types onto the infrastructural landscape to create a new urban topography, the next iteration in the evolving transformation of the Beirut river from seasonally flooding estuary to channelized riverbed.

A series of platforms are created, some programmed and others not, which together form a transverse connection of civic space across the river and multiple highways to meet the needs of surrounding neighbourhoods.

beirut02Proposed design prototype with a series of platforms to connect across the river and highways

Some of the approaches or tactics used in my thesis work were generic, and others are very specific. This is something that I am grappling with as I relate these research interests to my new locale: South Africa. Public realm erosion is an issue here as well, as is a history of conflict and and social instability, albeit for different reasons. However, the fragmentation or lack of use of the public realm by all often has to do with fears of violent crime due to wealth inequality, which is a much different social context than in Beirut.

My thesis project was the recipient of a 2015 ASLA Student award and can be viewed in more detail at:


Logan completed his MLA from the University of Toronto in May 2015 and is currently living in South Africa. He is beginning work at a firm in Cape Town in January 2016.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Sustainable Sediment Management in the Los Angeles Basin

By Nathaniel Oakley, 2015 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

“A week ago the rains began in Los Angeles, slicking the streets into road accidents, crumbling the mud from the hillsides and toppling houses into canyons, washing the world into the gutters and storm drains…When the rains come in Los Angeles they always take people by surprise.”

                                                                        — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Towering above the Los Angeles basin at the kink in the San Andreas Fault lies the transverse San Gabriel Mountain range. Rising over 10,000 feet into the sky at its highest point, it is known for its destructive debris flows as written about extensively by John McPhee and others. The tectonic force of the Pacific Plate grinding against the North American plate uplift the mountain range at the rate of one millimeter per year (fast in geologic time), and the repeated cycle of denuding conflagrations and orographic precipitation erase much of that progress.

la-sedimentationThe sedimentation engine in the Los Angeles basin

Toward the western end of the range, the headwaters of the Arroyo Seco River (a major tributary of the Los Angeles River) make their way into a watershed that is over 95% urbanized. At the moment, this highly developed watershed is protected from flooding and the ever-eroding San Gabriels by a series of anthropogenic infrastructural interventions, the largest being the Devil’s Gate Dam and a series of concrete channels that the Arroyo now flows through.

arroyoseco-watershedThe Arroyo Seco River Watershed flow path and context

The Dam, plagued by a history of sedimentation, is now at half of its original capacity. Normally, excess sediment is excavated and brought to nearby landfills, but recent fires and rain events have left L.A. County playing catch-up in order to maintain reservoir capacity. If storage behind Devil’s Gate is compromised, communities along the Arroyo are potentially at risk of flooding. Surprisingly, many of these nearby inhabitants were unaware there ever could be a flood risk as most of the time the channel remains dry, save for urban runoff trickling through the low-flow portion of the channel.

In addition to the sediment build up, downstream conditions of the Arroyo Seco are bleak. Wildlife habitat has been replaced with cold concrete, and most of it remains inaccessible to the public as the invert can drop off precariously to depths of 30 feet in some reaches and can quickly turn dangerous during storms. During heavy rains motorists have found themselves stranded, clamoring to the channel walls, requiring swift water rescue. Very little water that stems from the Arroyo Seco is allowed to recharge groundwater supplies, and the habitat-building sediment it delivers from the San Gabriels is trapped, destined for nearby landfills.

A strengthening El Niño climate cycle is predicted heading into 2016, which will hopefully give drought-stricken California much needed precipitation. With the return of wet weather, fast moving storm water will return to the Arroyo Seco delivering sediment from the crumbling slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains. Devil’s Gate Dam will be tested, while potential aquifer-replenishing rainwater will be sent directly to the ocean via impervious channels. Herein lies opportunity for discussion and implementation of unique water conservation and sustainable sediment management design strategies that go beyond the business as usual, Sisyphean, approaches of fighting sediment and flushing rain water out of the city.

My Senior Project at UC Davis, The Barrier: Seeking Sustainable Sediment Management Solutions for Devil’s Gate Dam, discusses these issues and proposes regenerative design strategies and interventions to balance natural sediment delivery, water storage, flood control and habitat restoration.The report and a short video discussing this research can be accessed at:

In May, Nathaniel Oakley received his Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture degree from the University of California, Davis. He is currently working as a Landscape Architect Assistant at Callander Associates in the Sacramento area.

Thanks for a Great Year!

The Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) invests in research and scholarships to increase our collective capacity to achieve sustainability and cultivate the next generation of design leaders. We’d like to thank our many friends, donors, and partners whose generous support helped us accomplish the following in 2015:

staff-thanks2The LAF photobooth at the ASLA Expo was another highlight.

The coming year is even more ambitious as LAF celebrates its 50th anniversary with a landmark event and the launch of several new initiatives. Save the date for LAF’s New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future on June 10-11 in Philadelphia. And look for the unveiling of a new Leadership program to help practitioners build capacity for transformative change. Stay tuned for announcements about these initiatives – and more! – in the coming months.

We couldn’t deliver these innovative programs without our many supporters. Please consider investing in the Landscape Architecture Foundation in your year-end giving by making a tax-deductible contribution online  or learn about the many ways to support LAF.

LAF is a tax-exempt organization under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Your charitable contribution is deductible to the full extent allowed by law.

U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters Study Complete

From October 2014 through September 2015, the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) partnered with the General Services Administration (GSA) to evaluate the performance of the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters site on the St. Elizabeth’s West campus in southeast Washington, DC, the largest federal redevelopment project since the Pentagon. This acclaimed project earned LEED Gold certification and features an extensive stormwater management system.

GSA is charged with providing workplaces for the federal government by constructing, managing, and preserving government buildings and by leasing and managing commercial real estate. Because GSA has committed to incorporate sustainability principles — including sustainable site design and management — in all of its real estate transactions, the agency was interested in studying the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters site to test assumptions, assess materials, and understand the built condition.

uscghq-frontThe U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters (Hoachlander Davis Photography, LLC)

The collaboration followed the model of LAF’s award-winning Case Study Investigation (CSI) program, with an academic team (Professor Christopher D. Ellis, PhD and student research assistant C. Dylan Reilly of the University of Maryland) leading the research and members of the design team (Emily McCoy of Andropogon and Brandon Hartz of HOK) lending their insights. Because of the longer timeframe, the partnership provided the opportunity for a more expansive study than what is possible through the 6-month CSI program.

uscghq-transportationResearcher Chris Ellis counts commuters by mode of transportation.

The year-long partnership allowed the 31-acre site to be studied through all four seasons in order to achieve a more balanced and nuanced picture of its performance. The research looked at a variety of ecosystem services provided by the site’s most notable features: 985 new trees, over 400,000 sf of green roofs, and a 2.4-acre stormwater pond. It also assessed workers’ use of and satisfaction with the outdoor open spaces, and use of alternate modes of transportation.

The researchers used temperature loggers to record and compare surface temperatures on areas of conventional black rubber roof, sedum green roof, and green roof planted with tall grass. They also compared native plant species and average site surface temperatures to those at a traditional office landscape. For the two courtyards, they used time-lapse photography to quantify the number of people using the space and determine the most common uses. They also observed commuter traffic to document the modes used and conducted a survey of employees to determine their satisfaction with the outdoor spaces.

The products of this collaboration are a Landscape Performance Series Case Study Brief and an internal report for GSA that discusses performance, provides recommendations for site management and maintenance, and suggests areas for further research.

LAF was proud to be part of this important study and will continue to pursue opportunities for longer-term research partnerships to evaluate the performance of exemplary built landscapes.