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Performance Evaluation: U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters

By C. Dylan Reilly, MLA Candidate, University of Maryland

Imagine rising in a translucent elevator above a wooded, stone courtyard when suddenly a bald eagle swoops by, carefully watching for its prey. Imagine walking onto a green roof and disturbing a napping doe, which promptly leaps safely to the ground. Imagine looking up from a babbling fountain surrounded by yellow flowers to see and hear a screeching red tailed hawk. These almost primal experiences in the built environment are characteristic of the new U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The landscape encourages these experiences through its incorporation of vegetation from different Maryland regions, like the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Blue Ridge.

gsa-uscg-greenroofU.S. Coast Guard Headquarters (Image: Taylor Lednum, GSA)

Last fall Dr. Christopher Ellis asked me if I would like to work with the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and the General Services Administration to evaluate the performance of this stunning landscape. As a graduate student finishing my first semester I was thrilled to have the opportunity. I come from a geology background, so it was an obvious fit. Through the course of the project I have spent countless hours reading case studies for precedent and pouring over scientific articles to understand how to develop rigorous metrics. During this process it quickly became clear how interdisciplinary landscape performance is. As researchers, we need to be able to identify the endangered species flying over our head as much as we need to know how to measure ambient air temperature.

At the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, we are looking at a variety of metrics, including biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and courtyard use. We are also observing how different surfaces on-site either contribute to or mitigate the urban heat island effect. To do this, we deployed a series of eight inexpensive temperature loggers, seven on different surfaces and one to measure ambient air temperature in a courtyard.

One of the most exciting temperature comparisons is between the green roof and the black rubber roof. At over 6 acres, the green roof is the third largest in North America, and we hypothesize that its heat island and stormwater benefits are significant. As we analyze the temperature data, we will pay close attention to timing because the magnitude of the urban heat island effect is greatest on clear summer nights.

rooftemp-images-600wTemperature logger on sedum green roof (left) and black rubber roof (right)

Some of the most exciting parts of our study are those metrics that involve on-site data collection, case study precedent, and review of scientific literature. Looking back at LAF’s formative A Case Study Method for Landscape Architecture published in 1999, it is impressive how much work LAF, design firms, and their research partners have done in the past 15 years to make case studies a viable way to advance the practice of landscape architecture. As someone just entering the field, landscape performance is an exciting place to be, and I look forward to working to develop more rigorous ways to measure and value designed landscapes.

Research Assistant C. Dylan Reilly is working with Dr. Christopher D. Ellis, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences & Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland to evaluate the environmental, social, and economic performance of the landscape at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

International Hurdles and Chance Relationships

By Kevin Eidick, MLA Candidate, University of Manitoba

Participating in LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program has been an extremely exciting experience so far. While I have to admit, my familiarity with the Landscape Performance Series website was little more than a quick click and overview in the past, this process has introduced me to such a vital resource that I will surely be revisiting during my remaining scholastic and professional career. This opportunity has exposed me to such a diverse breadth of projects and knowledge in landscape architecture and planning that boast some amazing environmental and socioeconomic benefits. Even more exciting is that these claims and performances are measured and backed up with some solid data.

My CSI research team is based in Winnipeg, Canada, and we are studying projects in the Riyadh Province of Saudi Arabia. Being one of few international research teams, and studying a project outside of the U.S., we were met with some unique hurdles. Firstly, many of the tools in the Landscape Performance Series Benefits Toolkit (for example, iTree, National Tree Benefit Calculator, and the National Stormwater Calculator) were developed for the U.S. They may not be appropriate to other countries or may require creative adaptations, such as using similar species or climate zones to estimate tree benefits in iTree.

We are investigating to see if we can modify variables within some of these software programs to more accurately represent the benefits in such a unique region of the world. Trying to find international equivalents to some of the software opened up the realization that most environmental agencies do not invest in similar tools. (Or perhaps they do exist but are not as readily available to the public.) It is impressive and commendable that federal agencies like the EPA and USDA offer such comprehensive resources.

wadihanifah02While faculty Research Fellow Jean Trottier was familiar with the projects and their context, going into CSI I knew very little about Saudi Arabia and even less about the city of Riyadh. I was quite concerned about pursuing measurements of our projects’ social benefits since most of the Landscape Performance Series case studies rely on questionnaires or surveys in their assessments. Given the more than 12,000km distance between our research team and the projects, as well as the social conventions in Saudi Arabia, public surveys would be impractical. This forced us to be creative and look at different social media aggregators as a way to assess the increase in project use or significance. We are also finding indirect indicators of use — the parks’ toilet blocks! However, we are not sure if we can develop a statistically solid model on this…unique… form of measurement.

I didn’t want our case studies to provide only a superficial overview of Riyadh’s social attitude towards the projects along the Wadi Hanifah. Yet we didn’t know Arabic, nor any Saudis personally who could offer opinion or insight on what some of these projects mean to them. The universe works in mysterious ways, and it seemingly threw me a bone. At the peak of my frustration with navigating the social benefits of the projects, I was fortunate enough to meet a neighbour in the apartment complex I had recently moved to. This neighbour, Farhan, had moved to Canada in 2013 after spending half a decade working at the King Saud University in Riyadh where his commute took him along the parks of Wadi Hanifah every morning.

With the Wadi Hanifah as the initial catalyst for conversation, this chance relationship has grown into a budding friendship. Farhan explained to me his experiences in the parks, how these experiences differ when he is there with his young family. He also gave me great insight on some of the social and cultural norms that exist in Saudi Arabia. It is interesting to see how the design of these projects responds to the cultural context of Riyadh. While there were some striking similarities between car-oriented North American cities and Riyadh (apparently their morning commutes have gruesomely endless bumper to bumper traffic that could give Los Angeles a run for its money), the Saudis are a much more private society with much less exuberance and flare in their public domain.

wadihanifah01It has been quite interesting to hear what are some of the most successful spaces in the Wadi Hanifah public parks from a citizen’s point of view. For example, the semi-circular seating areas with large limestone slab walls delineating more private areas offer families more intimate and comfortable spaces to enjoy the park and are heavily used on a daily basis. Similar to us Canadians and to our American neighbours, the Saudis also love to barbecue and use the public cooking areas in the parks to break the ice with strangers — inviting random passersby for a bite to eat and subsequent conversation.

Farhan has helped me navigate some interesting information (all in Arabic of course) that may inform our team as we delve further into the research process. Through this opportunity with CSI, I have been fortunate to meet a new friend, learn about a vibrant Saudi culture, learn more about Islam, and better inform myself on a part of the world I would otherwise not have been so thoroughly exposed to.

Research Assistant Kevin Eidick and Research Fellow Jean Trottier are participating in LAF’s 2015 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to evaluate the environmental, economic and social performance of three projects that are part of the Wadi Hanifah Civic Parks and Comprehensive Development Plan in the Riyadh Province of central Saudi Arabia.

P is for Process

By Sadie L. Walters, MLA Candidate, North Carolina State University

The writings of Richard Louv, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold have long served to guide me in my work and, ultimately, were responsible for leading me to landscape architecture. Since entering this circle, I have been inspired by the artful and environmentally sensitive work of historical and current landscape architects, including my teachers at North Carolina State University.

In my two years as a graduate student, I have come to the realization that evidence-based design is the direction in which I am headed — I want to know how landscape can be a bridge between human health and quality outdoor experience, how it can provide a corridor for the sweet song of the wood thrush, and how built environments can respond to and integrate with natural systems. To that end, landscape research has captured my focus. In the fall of 2014, Andy Fox approached me with an opportunity to participate in LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. In this program, I saw an opportunity to frame and begin to answer some of these questions within three landscapes in the North Carolina Piedmont.

While the chill of winter still clung to the dry air, Andy and I began the process of gathering information about our three projects, meeting with the design firms and respective project stakeholders. There was excitement in every meeting as we explained the value of landscape research and the forthcoming recognition of each site’s commitment to sustainability. As our discussions gained momentum, lists of sustainable features and potential areas of study grew long — certified North Carolina native landscape, innovative stormwater treatment trains, native bee habitat, increases in garden membership and volunteerism, reduction in mower time, and on and on. Following the meetings, we were rich in the currency of performance criteria, and so began our (re)quest for records and data.


We collected data and had follow-up meetings well into late May; it was then that the research limitations became clear. The façade of mountains of information opened up to reveal key missing links, holes in data collection, and absent records. The month and a half of deep digging showed us that there were far fewer suitable research topics than our initial meetings had indicated. It was to no one’s fault, but was simply a necessary reality of research.

Out of this experience, I offer the following lessons learned: take time early on to define your own method(s) of sorting through piles of information and develop a process to know when you will let go of a potential research topic and when you will push for more information.

As the heat of summer’s arrival pressed at the windows, Andy and I convened in his office for a conference call with LAF. As Andy described our current plans for measuring stormwater benefits, my eyes wandered to three books on his shelf — Louv, Carson, and Leopold. Even with our slimmed down list of measurable performance benefits, it was clear that we were still on the path, and the future of our study, though quite full, was bright.

Research Assistant Sadie Walters and Research Fellow Andrew Fox are participating in LAF’s 2015 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program. They are working to evaluate and document the environmental, social, and economic performance of three exemplary landscape projects in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

Maintenance: The Missing Link

By Scott Douglas, MLA Candidate, and M. Elen Deming, DDes, Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This summer, all three of the Chicago-land projects that we are studying as part of LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program share a common concern: the issue of maintenance. Maintenance levels and techniques can make or break a great project design, especially if the design innovates with new materials or plant aesthetics. If one goal of the designer-client team is to persuade the public to value such new combinations and effects, then it becomes imperative that maintenance be handled with the same level of commitment as the design, to help establish the new ecologies on-site and maintain the desired aesthetic. However, the effort of retooling and re-educating landscape maintenance staff is often far from an easy task.

During our initial meetings with the liaisons from three landscape architecture firms, the subject of maintenance frequently came up as a concern, sometimes even with a grimace. It is probably fair to say that many projects aren’t taken care of the way that designers envisioned when the projects were still on the drawing boards.

This maintenance issue has been exacerbated by the fact that the designs produced by today’s landscape architects have progressed dramatically from the work that was done 40-50 years ago. Landscape architecture has moved well beyond a focus on aesthetics, and we are now designing high-performance landscape systems that are an integral part of the site infrastructure. Bioswales, prairie restorations, functional wetlands, permeable paving, and other design features are commonly used to reduce the impact of new developments. However, as our site designs have become more precise and technical, has there been a reciprocal increase in skills, knowledge, and techniques on the maintenance end? Based on our recent interactions, we would conjecture that the long- term maintenance of many innovative projects is lagging behind.

One of the key variables is: Who performs maintenance service? Each of our three case study projects is maintained differently, ranging from dedicated professional staff to large volunteer group efforts.

01-bartelmeparkThe Chicago Parks District's Mary Bartelme Park in the West Loop community

Mary Bartelme Park is a city park that is managed and maintained by staff of the Chicago Parks Department. We learned that the design team received some push-back from city staff on the idea of using prairie-like planting areas in the park, chiefly because of maintenance issues that had arisen in other parks with similar treatments. As a result, the species diversity of the prairie planting plant palette was reduced during the design phase, thus making it easier for Parks staff to recognize which plants should be growing in those designated areas. However, even with the reduced plant palette, instances still occur when native perennials and grasses are cut back at the wrong time of year, resulting in a loss of self-seeding opportunities and the varied seasonal visual interest that these plants can provide. This points to a need for continuing education for maintenance staff, greater involvement by designers, and better coordination between landscape contractors associations, such as the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, and professional design associations like the American Society of Landscape Architects.

02-tynervolunteersVolunteers remove weeds from the prairie at the Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center in Glen View.

The Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center in Glen View, Illinois is maintained by a combination of city staff and volunteer groups. The volunteers remove weeds and collect seeds from the native plants in the prairie restoration area. Volunteer work days are organized several times per year and are typically attended by 10-25 people. At three hours per volunteer, this provides 30-75 person-hours of focused, detailed attention. Some individual volunteers go beyond that and dedicate well over 100 hours per year for invasive plant removal at the site. This added level of detailed attention is something that every designer wishes all of their projects received.

While touring the office buildings that surround the prairie, we were excited to see that the prairie aesthetic and its native plants had “overflowed” from the conservation area and seem to have influenced much of the landscape design on properties in the surrounding office park. Unfortunately, those plantings are not receiving the dedicated maintenance attention that the park is receiving, and they are quickly being overrun by more aggressive exotic invasive species. Worse, the establishment of invasive plant species so near the restored prairie threatens to reintroduce species so laboriously removed by hand.

03-loyolaLoyola University’s well-maintained Lake Shore Campus

Our third Chicago-land project is Loyola University’s Lake Shore Campus. The landscape is maintained by a dedicated maintenance staff that has successfully adjusted to a new native-heavy plant palette and an aesthetic style that recalls some of the native lakeside sand dune plantings. This team is thinking beyond general maintenance, as they are investigating opportunities to utilize the biomass that is collected from the campus plants, especially when the ornamental grasses are cut back. This is very forward-thinking from maintenance staff, possibly due to the overall ethos of sustainability that dominates the campus and all its missions. This also highlights the benefits of a dedicated staff working in close coordination with the designers and administrators to build capacity for new techniques and attitudes.

Since most projects do not benefit from dedicated maintenance staff or input from the maintenance team during the design phase, it is not surprising that parts of many projects fail during the first year or two after installation. Finger pointing doesn’t help. Landscape architects should be involved throughout the life of their projects, not just until the final walk through and the payment of their final design invoice. This does not suggest that landscape architects should create overly simplified designs in order to ensure that they are properly maintained. Instead, landscape architects should be more aggressive advocates for the long-term health and success of their constructed projects.

Clients and their staffs need to be educated about the significant importance of maintenance. This might include, for instance, bringing designers back to project sites for seasonal, or at least annual, visits. Landscapes are living, growing, and constantly changing projects that are never really “done,” so why should the landscape architect’s involvement end after installation? A weak design that is well maintained will quickly outshine an amazing design that is poorly maintained. Maintenance is, after all, the missing link between a good commission and a truly sustainable landscape.

Research Fellow M. Elen Deming and student Research Assistant Scott Douglas are participating in LAF’s 2015 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and working to evaluate the environmental, economic and social performance of three exemplary landscape projects in the Chicago area.

Sustaining Nature and Natural Processes in Ultra-Urban Environments

On April 16 the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and DeepRoot co-hosted a conversation and charrette at the SvR offices in Seattle. The theme was “Cities need nature, and nature needs cities: How and where do you struggle to bring nature to the built environment?” The goal was to better understand the opportunities and challenges to integrating nature into cities at every stage in the process, from conception and design to construction and maintenance.

The 20 attendees were a diverse cross section of landscape architects, engineers, arborists, and academics. The rich discussion delved into places that are problematic for ‘normal nature’, such as streetscapes, on structure, plazas, and transit. By examining what it takes to sustain natural processes in these highly-urbanized environments, the conversation went beyond the concerns of any one discipline and into the broader realm of what makes for the most successful public spaces.


DeepRoot is working to put together several videos and blog posts based on the day’s discussion. The first one on the history of the word “parking” will be available soon.  Stay tuned for more over the coming weeks!

[6/1 UPDATE] The first products are now available: