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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.

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. 

Shining a Spotlight on Landscape Performance in the Great Plains

By Hannah LoPresto and Brandon Zambrano, BLA Candidates, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

csi2018-unl-hanafan-530pxUndergraduate researcher Brandon Zambrano observes Tom Hanafan’s vegetation and bioretention capabilities during a May site visit.

Participating in LAF’s 2018 Case Study Investigation program has been an incredibly informative experience for our research team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We have just completed our second year as undergraduates in the landscape architecture program and are excited to continue learning about landscape performance as Research Assistants under the guidance of Research Fellow Assistant Professor Catherine De Almeida. We are eager to shine a spotlight on the landscape performance of two Great Plains projects: P Street Corridor by Design Workshop, a revitalized downtown streetscape in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park by Sasaki, a waterfront redevelopment in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Working on the post-occupancy study of both parks has been extremely beneficial in understanding how reclaiming underutilized sites can create high-performing landscapes.

Over the course of our study, we’ve discovered many commonalities between the P Street Corridor and Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park. With both sites located in the Great Plains, participating in the Case Study Investigation program has given us the opportunity to provide recognition and visibility to innovative constructed projects in a region that typically goes unrecognized. Both are public projects in urban settings with primary goals of transforming formerly unpleasant, underused spaces to grant increased public access. Along with public access, stormwater management strategies are essential aspects of both projects. P Street focuses on runoff capture and reduced irrigation cost for roadside bioswales. Tom Hanafan focuses on opportunities to preserve and restore riparian forest in a floodplain to withstand an immense, 500-year storm event. 

Although we’ve observed many commonalities between these two projects, each has numerous unique aspects of its own. With P Street located adjacent to the university, our research team was already familiar with the site, having visited and passed through on countless occasions. However, much of what we learned about the P Street project was beyond what we had experienced on site. P Street’s redesign was undertaken by a remote design firm and then passed to a local Lincoln firm for construction administration. This gave us the opportunity to understand the working relationship between a remote design firm and a local firm, revealing the trade-offs that come with this approach. The P Street project was also unique in the amount of recorded baseline data. Our team was pleasantly surprised to learn how extensive the design firm’s baseline data collection was, covering aspects such as user perception, impervious surfaces, and property values. While developing the master plan, the design firm implemented a community engagement process that provided excellent baseline data for our research team to develop our assessment of the project’s social benefits. Our team has been able to replicate the design firm’s pre-project survey (with a few additions of our own) to collect post-occupancy data in order to make a direct comparison of user perception before and after the corridor redesign.

blog-postpstreethannah1-226px-gwxAn inventory of P Street’s site elements, such as limestone benches, signposts and bioswales, is recorded by undergraduate researcher Hannah LoPresto.

Unlike P Street’s renovated streetscape, our study of Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park is focused on the reclamation of the Missouri River floodplain for native ecological riparian communities and human access to the river. Some key elements that illustrate this are the revitalization of the riparian forest with native trees along the northern and southern areas surrounding the park’s open space, and a native meadow mix planted along the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee-turned-amphitheater. In conversations with our firm liaison, we were surprised to learn about the pre-existing conditions of the site and how the landscape had been previously deteriorated due to ATV use and invasive species that affected the riparian forest’s growth. Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park converted a landscape of misuse to a friendly, highly accessible public park. Our team was also surprised to find out that the 2011 Missouri Flood happened during construction of the park. Even though this caused a significant delay, the firm managed to gather data from the occurrence and interpret it into qualitative diagrams in order to show the client how Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park proposed grading changes that would withstand a 500-year storm event. The design team turned something negative like the 2011 Missouri Flood, analyzed it, and interpreted it positively into the design of the site. We plan to further quantify the quality of the park in our user surveys.

As our research team nears the final stretch of the Case Study Investigation program, we look forward to collecting, documenting, and analyzing our data for these two Great Plains projects. We are especially excited to experiment with a few specific techniques such as on-site percolation tests, surveying users on-site, and mapping economic change in the surrounding areas. Learning from these data collection techniques and communicating with our firm partners and municipal clients has given us an incredible opportunity to grow as landscape architecture students and experience the growing necessity of using landscape performance to quantify the sustainable benefits of landscape architecture.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Research Assistants Hannah LoPresto and Brandon Zambrano and Research Fellow Catherine De Almeida 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.

Landscape Performance for a Pop-Up Space

By Naomi Wong Hemme, Master of Architecture Candidate, Morgan State University 

key-image--530pxSandlot in the spring, image by Naomi Wong Hemme

Sitting on a former industrial site in Baltimore, Maryland’s Inner Harbor is Sandlot, an interim pop-up installation and outdoor space designed by Mahan Rykiel Associates that serves as a local eatery and a waterfront destination where friends and families gather to relax and play. It is also the project I am studying as part of LAF’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program.

As an architecture student interested in how a legacy urban space can be activated to benefit surrounding communities, I jumped at the opportunity to study, from an interdisciplinary perspective, how small-scale and temporary urban landscape interventions such as Sandlot play a role in improving quality of life: how architecture and landscape architecture practitioners apply the principles of tactical urbanism to collaborate and create a socially inclusive, dynamic, and fun urban space.

Having recently relocated to Baltimore for my graduate studies, I am constantly learning about the city’s social fabric and the role the built environment plays. Prior to embarking on this project, I knew very little about the site, which allowed me to consider its landscape performance without any preconception. During my initial visits to the site, I was drawn by the simplicity of its design elements - how a built environment can be transformed using ordinary materials such as locally-sourced, recycled shipping containers and pallets, sand, as well as indigenous vegetation. Around me were small groups of friends enjoying happy-hour drinks and comfort food, couples relaxing on the urban beachfront with their dogs, and a few others getting competitive on the beach volleyball court.

While the focus of our research team has been analyzing and documenting the environmental, social, and economic impacts of Sandlot on the communities in Baltimore, we recognize that the temporal (a 7-year operation period) nature of the project lends itself to priorities and corresponding solutions that may be different from those of more permanent installations. This recognition has served as our guiding principle as we identified our project’s performance benefits and how they could be quantified and measured.

On a personal level, participating in the CSI program certainly has greatly enriched my academic experience. In addition to working with a researcher who is both seasoned in and passionate about transforming urban space, I have learned so much from the program’s well-established case study framework and research tools (I will definitely “borrow” some to assess my future designs). I am also grateful for the support and insight from our LAF partners as we navigate the case study process.

We are conducting our investigation using data from our collaborators as well as our own data, observational studies, and informal on-site survey results. Once the data is analyzed, we hope to compare the results with some of the alternate, conventional solutions to show the extent of the project’s landscape performance against its design goals. Because Sandlot is a seasonal installation (the site operates between May and October), we will be conducting the bulk of our fieldwork throughout June into early July - over a cold beverage and some crab corn fritters, no less!

The Morgan State Research Assistant Naomi Wong Hemme and Research Fellow Pavlina Ilieva 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. Upon completion, case studies are available through LAF’s Landscape Performance Series.

Using Drones as a Landscape Performance Assessment Tool

By Rachael Shields, MLA Candidate, University of Georgia

Our University of Georgia (UGA) team is participating in the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Case Study Investigation (CSI) program and includes professors Alfie Vick, Brian Orland, and Jon Calabria and me. We are studying Historic Fourth Ward Park in Atlanta and the University of Georgia’s Science Learning Center. The landscape architect for both projects was HDR’s Atlanta office.

Drones are currently a hot commodity in the world of package delivery or air strikes, but they are just beginning to take off in the design field (pun intended). Drones became part of our CSI research process when the need arose for high quality post-construction aerial images because online map imagery sources were not up-to-date. Collecting aerial imagery and video are increasingly common uses for drone technology in the design and planning professions. During the process of acquiring imagery, our team realized there were many fascinating advantages in using a drone — beyond the conventional uses.

uga-drone-530wThe drone our UGA research team used, prior to flight

The drone we used allowed us to collect data we never would have been able to otherwise. For this portion of the project we brought in Roger Lowe, a professor in the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, who is a specialist in spatial information technology and has a remote pilot certificate, also known as a “drone license.” In order to fly over UGA’s Science Learning Center, we first had to get flight clearance. Before flying, Roger made sure to check the weather and to become aware of any hazards that might affect the flight like powerlines, trees, and structures. He also knew to keep the craft at a maximum of two hundred feet above ground level. While imagery with a lot of people using the landscape would be great, drone flights over people are not permitted.

After flying, the imagery data were transferred to Agisoft PhotoScan, software that processes the images and produces data that can be opened in ArcGIS. For our research purposes, we captured a terrain file to show the topography of the site. PhotoScan also produced an orthomosaic, a seamless aerial formed from a group of orthoimages. Third, through the use of laser light reflected from terrain, structures, and vegetation, the drone is able to capture lidar data in the form of x,y,z measurements. This produces a point cloud that allows 3D analysis.

uga-sciencelearningcenter-dem-530wDrone-captured digital elevation model of the Science Learning Center


uga-sciencelearningcenter-aerial-530wDrone-captured aerial image of the Science Learning Center

The exciting potential we began to notice with this kind of technology is longitudinal monitoring. Future classes at UGA could track changes in the Science Learning Center’s landscape over time. For example, imagery can track the change in the area of shade cover, the effectiveness of the stormwater management methods on site, or even map changes due to erosion. Additional analyses with ArcMap, Grass GIS, and HydroCAD would provide cutting-edge landscape performance evaluation tools not seen in traditional methods.

In conclusion, drones have the capacity to provide a whole new landscape performance toolset. Drone technology is new to us, and we hope to include some of the unique aspects of drone data analysis as we continue to document our projects as Landscape Performance Series Case Study Briefs. So far, we have learned that drones have great possibilities, the extent of which, we are still trying to understand.

Research Assistant Rachael Shields and Research Fellows Jon Calabria, Brian Orland, and Alfred Vick are participating in LAF’s 2018 Case Study Investigation (CSI) program, which supports academic research teams to study the environmental, social, and economic performance of exemplary landscape projects.