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The New Nature: Using Digital Media to Track Landscape Performance

By Lisa DuRussel, RLA, LEED AP, Visiting Assistant Professor of Practice, and Aastha Singh, MSLA, The Pennsylvania State University

csi-psu-image3 530pxA group of park visitors take selfies, using the iconic Manhattan skyline as a backdrop at Hunters’s Point South Park.image-1-226pxThe Pennsylvania State University researchers turn to mobile platforms to glean landscape performance benefits at the SWA/Balsley designed Hunters Point Park South in Long Island City, Queens.

Are we driven to distraction with our iPhone, iPad, and iPod? Or can the capabilities of these devices be used to create a more flexible, adaptive, and unique means of data collection? We here at the Pennsylvania State University were inspired to turn to the digital landscape as a research opportunity by one of our case study projects, West Point Foundry Preserve (WPFP) in Cold Spring, New York.

This interpretive park, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by Scenic Hudson, has successfully built on the shift in digital culture by using mobile technology to heighten visitor experience within the natural environment. Since their mobile application “Foundry Tour App” designed by 4274 Design Workshop (a museum master planning and content development company), launched in September 2013, nearly 9,000 unique users have logged 12,630 sessions! At a site where no existing mechanism exists to track the number of visitors to the Preserve, the Pennsylvania State University team turned to the digital realm to see what type of data could be gleaned through user-generated, participatory, location-based properties of social media.  

Designed spaces are increasingly responding to the use of digital technology in everyday life. Charging stations, convenience outlets, and free Wi-Fi are commonplace. But in our tech-savvy world, where social media is popular enough that many first-time (and repeat!) users post about their visits, RSVP to an event via the web, or post digital photographs, potential exists to study hashtags and geotagging as a means to inspire and develop a series of datasets to inform research. 

image-2-226pxThe Pennsylvania State University researchers use their mobile device to explore the interpretive elements that showcase the site’s industrial life at West Point Foundry Preserve.

 We applied this thinking to another case study project, the SWA/Balsley-designed Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park in Long Island City, Queens. This park is uniquely situated on the East River with iconic views towards the Manhattan skyline. The site’s design includes multiple overlook points, along with seating and loungers along the waterfront. To assess the scenic and visual qualities enhanced by the park’s design, the research team chose to explore geotags - or location data such as coordinated or a named place to indicate where a photograph was taken - as found on social media.

By mapping geotagged metadata from sites such as Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram we can begin to qualitatively understand how a visitor engages with, moves through, and potentially values designed public spaces in a way beyond simple observation. So, rather than turning off our digital devices (literally), why not embrace being “in the (Instagrammable) moment” and use digital media as a flexible, innovative tool to foster stewardship, engage with nature, and track landscape performance?

The Pennsylvania State University Research Fellow Lisa DuRussel and Research Assistant Aastha Singh are participating in LAF’s 2018 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program, which supports academic research teams to study the environmental, economic, and social performance of exemplary landscape projects.

Donor Profile: Patrick Phillips


Patrick Phillips, formerly the Global CEO of the Urban Land Institute, has been a longtime supporter of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF). Though his career curved more toward economic and policy concerns, Patrick has continually worked with and admired landscape architects. Patrick has served on LAF’s Board of Directors twice, first in 1998 and again from 2009-2013. Through his engagements, Patrick watched LAF grow in capacity and impact and remains excited about the Foundation’s future. Recently, he made a significant contribution to that future by making a large donation to LAF’s scholarships and leadership programs.

As a graduate of the SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry Master of Landscape Architecture program, Patrick was drawn to the principles of inclusive design. He sees inclusive design as an extension of the values held by landscape architects who consider not only how environments function, but also to who is able to access spaces and resources. Patrick hopes to see more direct discussion of equity and inclusion in design. While the design professions may be seen as catering to the elite, Patrick aligns with LAF in advocating that landscape architecture is for everyone, and everyone should have the opportunity to explore the profession.

It was specifically LAF’s history and success with scholarships that led Patrick to choose the foundation for his major gift contribution. Patrick identifies education as the principal means by which people advance, grow, and contribute to society. He places special importance on scholarships as a means to expand access to education. It was through scholarships that Patrick was able to attend college. By providing additional funding to LAF’s scholarships program, Patrick hopes to expose new people to landscape architecture and make sure they have the resources to pursue careers in the profession. More so, Patrick wants to see a new generation of designers all actively pursuing inclusive design in their projects and hopes his gift will help to shepherd this goal from vision to reality.

Patrick also sees the potential of professionals already engaged in the field to push landscape architecture in exciting new directions. The work of the 2018-2019 cohort of the LAF Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership inspired and excited Patrick. He recognizes that their ground-breaking ideas have the potential to impact the profession in profound ways and that the Fellowship provides resources participants may not otherwise have access to: time, money, and structured feedback. Reflecting on the leadership aspect of the program, Patrick was excited by the intellectual adventurism and willingness to take risks and push boundaries that he saw in the Fellows. Their energy and enthusiasm inspired hope that their projects will bring about new ways of understanding and enacting landscape architecture.

Through the Foundation’s many programs and initiatives, Patrick sees LAF as not only a resource for the profession but also as a thought leader within the profession. He points to LAF’s Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future in 2016 and the resulting New Landscape Declaration as an example of this, challenging landscape architects to design projects that address the defining issues of our time. Patrick was also motivated by publications from LAF’s Landscape Performance Series with their research and metrics about how design elements can contribute to resilience, well-being, and various other indicators. LAF is thankful for Patrick’s generosity, and the generosity of all of our donors, that enable us to maintain and expand our programs and leadership for landscape architecture.

Time and Landscape Performance

1patinaExamples of change to landscape details over time. Image: S. Colwill
Have you ever visited a park or public space that you saw pictured in a glossy publication, just to discover that it didn’t quite live up to the photos? Simon Colwill at the Technical University of Berlin is working to increase the knowledge of the myriad factors that contribute to the aging, patination, and decay of built landscapes over time. Colwill’s work recognizes that while aging can create positive changes in a landscape, the machinations of time can also chip away at the effectiveness and usefulness of an otherwise well-designed landscape and be detrimental to its performance.
colwill_benchChange to a wooden bench in full shade under a canopy tree over 7 years. Above, left: year of completion. Above, right: 1 year after completion. Bottom, left: 7 years after completion. Bottom, right: detail of 7 years after completion. Image: S. Colwill
Colwill captured an astounding 80,000 photos in public spaces in Berlin between 2008 and 2017 of projects dating from 1990 to 2015, documenting changes in landscape details such as steps, paths, seating, and walls. This meticulous, year-by-year method of collecting data has targeted the primary agents of landscape transformation over time which are:
  • Site and contextual factors such as the degree of exposure, topography and aspect, soil mechanics, and influences from surrounding elements such as traffic, buildings and especially vegetation.
  • Design and detailing factors that come from designers’ handling of the materials, including geometry and form, suitability of materials and construction methods, and ease of maintenance and repair.
  • Material-specific factors that require in-depth knowledge of each material such as quality, durability, and surface protection.
  • Implementation factors such as workmanship, site supervision, construction technique, and conformance with construction standards.
  • Effects of environmental processes and weathering such as climatic agents, temperature, humidity, wind, atmospheric contaminants, surface soiling, biological agents, and spontaneous vegetation growth.
  • Impacts of user actions such as overuse, misuse, and underuse.
  • Maintenance and repair factors including the frequency, quality, and intensity of repair—lack of maintenance or incorrect maintenance is one of the primary contributors to accelerated deterioration.
  • Force majeure such as flooding, fires, storms, riots, and natural disasters.
Through the use of the extensive photographic database and case studies, Colwill’s research, funded by the DFG/German Research Foundation, will develop methods for monitoring built landscapes over time, identifying key causes of change, developing optimization strategies and methods for forecasting change, and, crucially, disseminating the research findings to practitioners.
3patina1Examples of surface material changes. a. and b.) Deposits of airborne sediments on concrete wall—year 1 vs. year 10. c.) Biological growth on wooden deck—year 17. d.) Biological growth limited to riser due to reduced trampling and maintenance—year 1 vs. year 7. Image: S. Colwill
Of course, extensive knowledge exists within the profession and among landscape architecture firms about the effects of time on materials and built projects, but the profession often lacks both research to back it up and institutional memory of such critical information, as evidenced in the occasional rapid deterioration and/or failure of some newly-built projects. Colwill’s work represents yet another chain in the critical link between research and practice that is essential for projects to perform to their full potential. Practitioners must be able to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and other unique characteristics of each material and be able to forecast material performance over time—and Colwill’s research is attempting to create the tools to enable that.
To strengthen the level of feedback between academia and practice, Colwill has stressed the importance of his students in research. Students that participate benefit from a sort of ‘reality check’ on their perceptions of built landscape which were initially formed by ostensibly perfect projects portrayed in landscape architecture publications – students have a chance to understand that creating lasting landscapes isn’t as effortless as it seems. Ultimately, Colwill’s research seeks to contribute to a feedback loop for the profession, avoiding the repetition of failures and, eventually, ensuring that initial investments in projects are honored with an optimal and useful life in which they live up to their performance objectives. While it would be unrealistic to expect every built project to maintain the glowing quality of promotional photos throughout its life cycle, Colwill’s research demonstrates another step in the direction of true “research and development” in landscape architecture. Colwill’s contribution to understanding how our spaces change over time is advancing understanding of landscape performance and helping to bridge the critical connection between research and practice.

Simon Colwill can be reached at

Works cited:

Colwill, Simon. “Time, Design and Construction: Learning from Change to Built Landscapes Over Time.” In Bridging the Gap. Rapperswil, Switzerland: ECLAS Conference Proceedings, 2016.
Colwill, Simon. “Time, Patination and Decay. In Creation/Reaction.” University of Greenwich, London UK: ECLAS Conference Proceedings, 2017. 
Colwill, Simon. “Von Alterungsprozessen lernen”, (German, French) Anthos no. 3 (May 2016):31-33.
Kirkwood, Niall. The Art of Landscape Detail. Fundamentals, Practices, and Case Studies. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 1999.

Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) for Landscape Performance Series Case Studies

Have you found yourself browsing LAF’s Case Study Briefs in the Landscape Performance Series (LPS), looking for ways to measure performance or just getting excited about new developments in design? Our hardworking Case Study Investigation (CSI) teams developed the LPS library of 150 case studies since 2011. The final case studies are more than just the result of months of work evaluating landscape performance for built projects–they represent a scholarly publication that has been peer-reviewed. This distinction is critical, as the case studies represent important works of research to support further knowledge of landscape performance, not to mention that peer review is an integral part of the tenure and promotion process in academia. Further, the rigor of peer review cements these case studies as a resource for both practice and future research. To more effectively represent the case studies as the scholarly product that they are, an alumnus of the CSI program suggested that LAF assign a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) to each. DOIs provide a persistent link to online, scholarly content and are used widely to identify academic, professional, and government information, including journal articles, research papers, reports and other publications.

In April, LAF applied and was accepted as a member of CrossRef, a DOI Registration Agency. Membership allows LAF to assign DOIs to case studies and other scholarly products, which will enable persistent cross-publisher citation in online academic journals and other research papers. Having DOIs will benefit both the authors and LAF by enhancing the visibility of the documents and lending more academic credibility to our many authors. We are pleased to offer this increased level of visibility to our researchers and users and ensure that LPS content remains accessible to all. 

Equity and Inclusion in Practice: Mithun

mithunphotobyjuanhernandez-ibarramedia530pxPhoto by Juan Hernandez, Ibarra Media; Image courtesy of Mithun

In issuing the New Landscape Declaration, the Landscape Architecture Foundation has made a commitment to strengthen and diversify our global capacity as a profession and to cultivate a bold culture of inclusive leadership, activism, and advocacy within our ranks. To promote these values, LAF is publishing a series of articles to showcase the ways in which design firms are demonstrating leadership on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, from providing targeted support for students and emerging professionals to seeking outside guidance and evaluation of internal policies. This article continues the series by sharing Mithun’s experience with the International Living Future Institute’s JUST program and the firm’s motivation to pursue a JUST Label.

Mithun is an integrated design firm that merges architecture, interiors, landscapes, urban design, and planning. Working across the U.S., the firm is made up of a diverse community of 200 employees in offices in Seattle, Washington and San Francisco, California. Mithun recently completed an introspective, community-minded evaluation process that culminated with the assignment of a JUST Label. A program of the International Living Future Institute, JUST is a voluntary disclosure tool for organizations to report on social justice and equity within their operations, using a range of organization- and employee-related indicators.

In addition to serving as a transparency tool, the JUST Label offers a standardized method of comparing one firm’s performance to another’s. Mithun chose JUST over other options like the B Corporation designation because the JUST Label is already in use within the design community, and other designations did not align as well with Mithun’s service model. Created and managed by the organization behind the Living Building Challenge, JUST has grown out of the green building industry and has been used by many architecture firms, as well as a few landscape architecture firms including PWL Partnership and Biohabitats.

Mithun’s longtime commitment to equity is what brought the firm to the JUST program as a way to demonstrate its values at the organizational level. Since its founding over 60 years ago, Mithun has placed great importance on being an active member of the communities its offices exist within. Many senior-level employees serve in leadership roles with community organizations, and all employees are encouraged to contribute to the community through volunteer opportunities and community design projects.

The firm further saw the JUST registration process as a thoughtful tool to consider issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the workplace. The label looks at gender and racial diversity, pay scale equity, gender pay equity, and family friendly policies.  Surveying worker happiness is required, and stewardship metrics that span charitable giving to community volunteering and responsible investing are evaluated.  For Mithun, pursuing a JUST Label meant formalizing policies around many issues previously addressed on an ad hoc basis, such as the creation of a company policy providing employees with up to 16 hours of paid time off annually to volunteer in the community.

The process also led Mithun to reconsider its human networks. There has been a shift in recruitment as the firm considers what networks it reaches out to and who may have been excluded from recruitment methods of the past. Mithun has intentionally become involved in new networks and has been able to find talented student  interns by connecting with communities of color that are underrepresented in design practice. Further, Mithun has found that rising designers are especially interested in working for firms that demonstrate commitment to transparency and inclusion, and the JUST Label allows Mithun to do exactly that.

mithunhometeamnorthrichmondcabgroupshotsmphotobysamholman530pxAs part of the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge, Mithun collaborated with the North Richmond Community Advisory Board - a diverse group of local residents, elected officials, public agencies, and community organizations - to turn investments in sea level rise adaptations and aging infrastructure into opportunities for all. Photo by Sam Holman

Mithun has also shifted the scope and organization of its work to more holistically involve and empower the communities it partners with, as most clearly demonstrated by the firm’s entry to the San Francisco Bay Area’s Resilient by Design challenge. Mithun co-created a solution with the affected community, approaching resilience through a racial equity framework with a broad awareness of how the design process can be grounded through deeper community engagement with community liaisons, offering stipends to community leaders and growing local jobs through the structure of the design solutions. 

From engaging in the JUST program, Mithun has seen many positive outcomes and expects to see further benefits as conversations continue. Overall, the firm’s work is now done with greater intention regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels. And the JUST process isn’t a one-time exercise. The JUST Label is valid for two years, and organizations can update or renew at any time. In 2019, Mithun plans to reengage in the process to update its JUST Label and reaffirm its commitment to transparency and the well-being of its employees. 

Visit to see Mithun’s JUST Label and the details behind the indicators, along with the information for the over 70 other firms and organizations that have participated in the program. If your firm is interested in learning more about Mithun’s experience with the JUST program and evaluation process, please email Rory Doehring, LAF Communications Associate, who will put you in contact with a member of Mithun’s JUST committee.