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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Urban Environmental Education in South Central Los Angeles

By David del la Cruz, 2017 National Olmsted Scholar


“¿Crees que llenemos el camion?” (Do you think we will fill up the bus?) my mom eagerly asks the night before we take a hike to Temescal Canyon.

Saturday morning we wake up at dawn, dew still on cars. I pick up my nephews and meet my mother at the Slauson Recreation Center. Of course we filled up the bus.

When I show up, the bus driver shares her excitement on having a bus full of people. She is ready to get moving on our short family hike on this breezy Los Angeles morning. We finally get off the 10-E freeway and get onto the Pacific Coast Highway. A foggy Pacific Ocean vista leaves the kids in the bus in awe.

This family hike took my neighbors to the Santa Monica Mountains, far from the center of the city. As we pull up to the park for the hike, the last person trickles out, and a few people scream out, “Foto del grupo!” (Group photo!) I go ahead and take the picture of our large group. We are met by Coral, Park Ranger at the Santa Monica Mountains, and Lily, our Trail Lead. They share park and trail etiquette with us before we start the hike.

This initial trip was a great welcome back to Los Angeles after my 3 years at the University of Washington where I finished my coursework in landscape architecture.

In my last year in school, I organized a range of events in collaboration with organizers in South Central Los Angeles — from the Dreamers of South Central Los Angeles to helping South Central Arts build a base of membership along with PAINT L.A. Adding to these fruitful collaborations, this hiking trip was a collaboration with the Resident Advisory Council of the Pueblo del Rio Housing Projects. My mother is a part of the Resident Advisory Council, and she is also a respected community leader.

I look up to her and the commitments she holds with her community — from the church to the day-to-day house visits she makes to her neighbors, talking about health, checking in with and offering consejos (counseling) to her community. Her organic leadership is part of what has shaped my own ethic in leadership, along with community organizations such as Communities for A Better Environment and East Yard Communities for a Better Environment. These organizations provided me a grounding in the environmental justice movement in Los Angeles.

I was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, a large community south of downtown that has swaths of vacant land, polluted lots, and, most importantly, community members with exceptional abilities in finding ways to continue living under these conditions.

I am commited to environmental justice, and one of the ways this commitment can unfold is by exploring environmental education in the community that raised me. There are countless organizations throughout Los Angeles promoting environmental education by taking trips like the family hike I helped organize with community leaders and the National Park Service out of the Santa Monica Mountains. Nonetheless, I am interested in how environmental education takes on the issues of urban areas in working-class communities and communities of color.

Landscape architecture has given me the ability to think through urban environmental education and the ways that site design and community engagement can tackle issues of pollution at the broader level, and inclusion at the local level. I aim to use the skills of this profession to expose younger generations throughout my community to see how landscape architecture may be able to weave together community engagement with something as technical as phytoremediation.

My 2017 National Olmsted Scholar award will be used to look at these different aspects of South Central Los Angeles to work through addressing the legacies of environmental racism and historic disinvestment that impact this largely black and brown community. By understanding the impact that urban environmental education might have, working with youth and within the K-12 education system will help in building future leaders in the environmental field.

I plan to work closely with Los Angeles Unified School District and organizations committed to expanding open and green space in the region to continue building youth leadership around urban environmental issues in working-class communities and communities of color. Some of the leading organizations committed to this vision include From Lots to Spots, Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, Trust for Public Land, Pacoima Beautiful, among others.

The guiding research question for my Olmsted Scholar project is: How can vacant land in Los Angeles temporarily be used to support an urban environmental education ethic for high school youth?

David de la Cruz, a first generation student in higher-education, received a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Washington in June. He was selected as LAF’s 2017 National Olmsted Scholar and recipient of the $25,000 graduate prize.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Illuminating Sites of our Multicultural Heritage to Promote Social Justice

By Kristi Lin, 2017 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Although I had heard my Japanese-American grandparents talk about being incarcerated during World War II, it wasn’t until I went to Manzanar National Historic Site, a former Japanese incarceration camp, that I realized their stories were real. Walking the actual paths behind the barbed wire fence at Manzanar allowed me to get a glimpse from their perspective. What I experienced in this landscape ignited my passion to protect the civil rights of all people today so that this history is never repeated. At Manzanar, I discovered the potential of landscape architects to promote social justice through illuminating sites of our multicultural heritage.

klin-01-530wLeft: Ready to pass into dining room, 1942 (Image: Stewart Francis via Wikimedia Commons); Right: Our walk to the barracks, 2016 (Image: Kenji Lo)

After entering Manzanar, I walked on the worn sandy paths to the barracks. From there I went to the mess hall and latrine. Walking in the footsteps of those who had traveled these paths countless times, I could not help but imagine: what would I do if I had to live like this? My grandfather was a U.S. citizen, born in Berkeley, California and beginning high school when he and his family were forced to leave their home and go to an incarceration camp. What would I do if I had to leave all my friends and live in this desolate place because of my ancestry? I had heard “camp stories” practically since the day I was born, but it wasn’t until going to Manzanar that I could put myself in their shoes.

klin-02-530wLeft: Pool in pleasure park, Manzanar Relocation Center, 1943 (Image: Ansel Adams via U.S. Library of Congress); Right: Bridge in pleasure park, 2015 (Image: Kristi Lin)

The views were incomparable to any of the black and white photos I had seen before. The dry desert punctuated by the barbed wire fence made me feel powerless to speak up, demand a fair trial, or escape. In stark contrast, I was calmed by the view of Merritt Park, a Japanese-style garden in Manzanar that the incarcerees designed with placed stones, a pond, and delicate plantings to provide respite from their bleak surroundings.

Witnessing Manzanar made me think about the relevance of this story to today. For my grandparents, looking like the enemy caused them to lose their civil rights. As their granddaughter, it is my duty now to protect the civil rights of all people. Towards this goal, I have helped lead Manzanar Pilgrimages, a program where diverse college students, community activists, and former Japanese-American incarcerees travel together to Manzanar and build cross-cultural understanding.

What can landscape architects learn from Manzanar about designing interpretive sites? Recently, I interviewed landscape architect Dennis Otsuji, FASLA who helped the National Park Service design Manzanar National Historic Site in the 1990s. Otsuji organized design charrettes with a team of Japanese-American landscape architects, all of whom were formerly incarcerated. The team included: Asa Hanamoto, FASLA; Ronald Izumita, FASLA; Hideo Sasaki, FASLA; Joseph Yamada, FASLA; Frank Kawasaki, FASLA; Robert Murase, FASLA; and Ken Nakaba, FASLA. Understanding the importance of circulation and views in site design, the team’s first priorities included restoring the original street grid, barbed wire fence around the whole site, and guard tower at the visitors’ entrance. These were all restored in the locations and materials of 1942 to ensure undeniable authenticity. When I asked Otsuji how landscape architects can promote social justice, he said that the most important goal is to interpret historic sites with accuracy.

klin-03-530wLeft: Manzanar street scene, 1943 (Image: Ansel Adams via U.S.Library of Congress); Right: Manzanar interpretation, 2016 (Image: Kenji Lo)

Reflecting on Manzanar, I am convinced that landscape architects can use their understanding of circulation, views, and resource protection to help illuminate sites significant to our multicultural heritage and thereby raise awareness about the importance of diversity and inclusion. How do we measure the success of such landscapes? I believe we must ask, are we offering visitors the chance to experience history accurately and authentically through honoring artifacts and significant sites? How many people are visiting? Is the landscape connected to programs through which people can engage with it from multiple viewpoints and after they have visited? Can we help increase diversity in the National Register of Historic Places where only 3% of the 77,000 properties listed were explicitly associated with African-American, Mexican-American, and Asian-American heritage in 2004? (Data from “Historic places and the diversity deficit in heritage conservation” by Ned Kaufman, 2004. I could not find statistics on sites associated with Native Americans and Pacific Islander Americans.) Through using landscapes to help tell diverse stories, I believe that landscape architects can promote social justice and become agents of change.

Kristi Lin graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture from the University of California, Davis. She is currently a fellow at The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Coal Ash Wastescapes - Advocating for Designed Remediation

By Lauren Delbridge, 2017 National Olmsted Scholar

Landscape architecture naturally combines aspects of science, engineering, ecological understanding, and design in a way that sets us apart from scientists, engineers, ecologists and other designers. We as a profession have the skill set to tackle large-scale issues, which is an aspect of the field that has always captivated me. I quickly became drawn to design projects focused on the remediation of disturbed sites, and I began to find my niche in the complexities of scientific engineering, natural systems, and experimental design.

Nearly 140 million tons of coal ash are produced each year in the United States. 

As coal is burned to produce energy, the ash created during the process is collected, mixed with water, and piped to create ponds, which are typically unlined. Coal ash itself contains questionable amounts of heavy metals such as chromium, arsenic, and lead that become problematic as these unlined ponds allow seepage into the underlying groundwater systems.

ldelbridge-01-530wData from EPA Coal Ash Waste Sites as mapped by the Sierra Club

I framed my year-long thesis project around the issue of coal ash ponds and delved into the complex nature of coal ash, the workings of coal-fired power plants, existing engineering strategies, and applied methods of phytoremediation and bioremediation. With EPA rulings mandating the safe closure of coal ash ponds across the United States, I recognized the great potential for thoughtful, designed remediation strategies that would safely transform a coal ash pond into a space for human interaction, education, and experience.

ldelbridge-02-530wIllustrations show the path of coal ash.

I focused my work around Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station, situated along the James River south of Richmond, Virginia. As the largest coal burning power station in the state, the site offers opportunities for remediation at a large scale that could act as a precedent for the treatment of other coal ash ponds across the country. One of the more unique aspects of the site is the adjacent Dutch Gap Conservation Area that creates a distinct juxtaposition between the degraded industrial landscape and thriving ecological habitats. In addition to remediating the coal ash ponds and designing with people in mind, my project also responds to the surrounding ecological conditions.

ldelbridge-03-530wMy thesis project focused on Chesterfield Power Station in Chesterfield, Virginia.

The most challenging aspect of my project was creating a landscape that was more than a beautiful space. I worked to design a system of remediation that would continue to accept coal ash waste as the Chesterfield Power Station continues to burn coal. The coal ash waste travels through a series of remediation cells and is ultimately transformed into a growing medium. The act of turning waste into soil is the ultimate form of responsible waste management.

The extensive research that went into discovering strategies to remediate coal ash was a huge part of my project, and informed my design work in ways that went well beyond the explorations that I had engaged in previous studio projects. While site inventory, analysis, and synthesis played a role in design development, the overlay of remediation processes introduced me to a new way of going about site design. This coal ash remediation project was ultimately a culmination of science, engineering, and ecology that came together as a space designed to be beautiful and to foster human education and experience. While still experimental and theoretical in nature, “Coal Ash Wastescape” opens the conversation to what coal ash ponds could become in their future lives.

ldelbridge-04-530wThe Productive Wastescape design sends coal ash waste through a series of remediation cells, ultimately transforming it into a growing medium.

I am interested in continuing to merge science, engineering, and ecology in an artful way to create landscapes that offer more than just a beautiful view. Beginning to understand the complexities of remediation has inspired me to seek out opportunities for landscape architects that expand beyond the traditional boundaries of the profession. I plan to continue research on the remediation of coal ash and get involved with organizations that have the motivation and mandate to explore alternative solutions to the disposal of coal ash. As these conversations develop, I would like to focus more attention on the future of the coal ash pond site as a whole. 

In addition to staying involved with the developing conversation about coal ash, I plan to travel to remediated or reclaimed landscapes of note to expand my knowledge of redesigned disturbed lands, with a view to documenting a set of case studies. This documentation could be used as an educational tool for public and/or industry information and as a basis for further design research. Even though to date, very little remediation work has focused on coal ash ponds specifically, much could be learned from current projects that deal with similar issues while creating spaces for people to experience.

I want to push the profession of landscape architecture into conversations currently dominated by scientists, engineers, and ecologists. I feel that we as designers should hold the power to bring together these technical fields in a way that creates environments for people.

Lauren received a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from Virginia Tech in May. She currently works at LandDesign in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was selected as LAF’s 2017 National Olmsted Scholar and recipient of the $15,000 undergraduate prize.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: A Role for Design in Addressing the Impact of Early Childhood Trauma

By Catharine McCord, 2017 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist 

cmccord-01-530wImage board presented to staff, parents, and students at Sewall Child Development Center and REACH Charter Elementary to gather feedback for the desired experiences for the sensory garden

In order to effectively support people who have experienced trauma, landscape architects must have a deep understanding of how the materials and spatial compositions they select will impact users. A designer’s ability to thoughtfully construct spaces that serve the specific needs of those seeking emotional and behavioral support will be strengthened by understanding the ways in which trauma alters the brain, the resiliency of the brain to heal through nature-based interventions, and design aspects that support this healing. To fully understand the potential that landscape architects have to positively support treatment services, a cross-disciplinary dialogue exploring the incredible possibilities of trauma-related brain science is critical to developing a shared understanding of how to account for the specificity of that information in our work.

Brain chemistry is modified as a result of experiencing trauma, altering the way the brain responds to stress and affecting learning, memory, and behavioral outcomes. This suggests the need to introduce healthy coping mechanisms as resources to manage stress and trauma. Emerging studies show that the brain can be repaired through a process called neuroplasticity. The brain has the ability to develop and form new neural pathways and connections throughout life, suggesting that new coping mechanisms can be learned. 

Landscapes can serve to restore agency to the lives of those suffering by offering choices so users can control how and where their time is spent in a space. Being able to make one’s own choices gives back a sense of control that is diminished or absent in the lives of people suffering from stress and trauma-related disorders. Horticultural therapy uses plant-based activities as part of the treatment process. This therapeutic modality is perceived as less threatening as it works through building a rapport between the therapist and the clients. Studies have shown that when performing nurturing plant-based activities, motivation to participate is increased, as is intellectual, social, emotional, and physical functioning.

To put these ideas into practice — namely, the application of neuroplasticity to landscape architecture — I designed a sensory garden and co-wrote a grant with the Vice President of Development for Sewall Child Development Center, an inclusive early childhood program that serves children of all backgrounds and abilities, including those with special needs. We received $75,000 from the Colorado Garden Foundation to build the sensory garden on 1/3 acre of their site. Construction is scheduled to begin this month.

cmccord-02-530wSewall Child Development Center receives a $75,000 grant award from the Colorado Garden Foundation. Left to right: Catharine McCord, Jim Fricke, Executive Director of the Colorado Garden Foundation, and Meribeth Waldrep, Vice President of Development at Sewall Child Development Center (Image: Colorado Garden Foundation)

The sensory garden will be organized around natural materials designed to stimulate all five senses and encourage hands-on, multi-sensory, and social learning. It will provide a safe, non-threatening space that serves as an opportunity for sensory interaction and ongoing early education. Therapeutic horticulture techniques will be incorporated into Sewall’s transdisciplinary educational and intervention model. The garden will also be available to the surrounding community, functioning as a neighborhood space when the academic schedule allows, so that the garden can become a true community asset.

The CEO of Sewall recently reported that 40% of the children they serve suffer from toxic stress. This results from living in poverty, living with abuse or neglect, witnessing domestic violence, and coping with other life circumstances. She says the best treatment is providing loving, stable environments. Staff, parents, and therapists at the center discuss the struggle these children have with processing sensory inputs.

The sensory garden is designed to accommodate the diverse ways that these issues can manifest in children. For this garden, sensory integration was broken down into three zones of arousal: sensory over responsive, sensory under responsive, and sensory seeking.

Sensory over responsive children are children who are overstimulated and require a calm and soothing environment. For those kids who are overstimulated and not ready to be outside or enter the space, there are calm moments at the entrance that allow them to survey the space and choose what to engage with. They can go near active zones and test their level of engagement with a safe place to retreat to. This allows for a self-determined break that doesn’t take them out and away from their peers but gives a sense of autonomy to choose when to engage. Soothing and quieter moments will be dispersed throughout the site to allow kids to move between these levels of arousal when they need to.

Sensory under responsive children are those who have a low perception of sensory stimuli and need help activating their senses. Enticing elements will be included to help the children engage with their environment such as interactive musical elements, activities featuring a cause-and-effect lesson, and sensory pathways that challenges their ability to navigate their space. Pathways will range from enabling to challenging, from safe and stable to elements that require active concentration to traverse. Some will be undulating to challenge proprioception, or the ability to orient oneself in space.

Sensory seeking children, those who have high energy and are seeking an outlet, require programming for high energy, full range of movement activities. Active terrain will be integrated for sensory seeking children, who will need to use their whole bodies to climb and navigate through tunnels. Fort building will provide a range of opportunities for developmental benefits including cooperation, compromise, negotiation, leadership, vulnerability, proprioception, and balance. These spaces are visible from the entrances and draw the seeking children into and through the site.

The idea is that once the children have a space where they can learn how to maintain their optimal zone of arousal, they will be able to learn self-soothing techniques, build healthy coping mechanisms, and be in a better frame of mind to engage socially and cooperatively.

cmccord-03-530wCatharine works on site prep at the 1/3 acre site of the future sensory garden. (Image: Jody Beck, University of Colorado Denver)

The garden will be completed through community support with engagement from local landscape architecture and construction firms, horticultural therapists from Denver Botanic Gardens, the Congress Park Neighborhood Green Team, and the University of Colorado’s Urban Horticulture Club. These organizations will provide in-kind services, volunteer time, and plant materials divided from home gardens, making this a true community effort.

In May, Catharine McCord received a Master in Landscape Architecture from the University of Colorado, Denver. She recently presented her work at the 2017 Council for Educators in Landscape Architecture in Beijing, China.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Redefining Our Borderlands

By Anjelica Sifuentes, 2017 University Olmsted Scholar


We are currently living in one of the most divisive political eras, with the issue of border security between the U.S. and Mexico at the forefront of many debates. My parents are Mexican-American, and our family is from the part of the country that has been scrutinized and villainized because of its location along the Rio Grande. Until recently, I hadn’t recognized the connection between my culture and my self-identity, both personally and professionally, but as I look back at my journey through these defining moments, I can’t imagine identifying without it.

I was born in early 1993 in San Antonio, Texas, a short 145 miles away from my extended family in Eagle Pass, Texas and the Mexico-U.S. border which runs along it. My father grew up in this border town, and my mother spent her childhood in El Paso and Mexico City until they both moved to San Antonio to start their own family. My entire life was consumed with my culture, but I was naive to living without it until I moved from this diverse and inclusive Texan city to the noticeably segregated and conservative Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This intense culture shock quickly made me reevaluate who I was as a person and what I planned to focus on in my professional career. 

A huge part of my Mexican heritage revolves around community, which helped inspire my research as I enter my final year at Louisiana State University. I see an opportunity to confront the struggling relationship between the U.S. and Mexico by designing regional border prototypes derived from the way people lived before the current interferences. In this research lies an opportunity to promote social change through unconventional means during a time when the future seems uncertain for immigrants and anyone who feels vulnerable because of who they are and where they’re from.

eagle-pass-green-space-530wUninhabited green space between downtown Eagle Pass and the Rio Grande

Generally speaking, the celebration of our border has become a quiet whisper due to political pressure that has left our cities feeling neglected and somewhat ashamed. Historically, as one sister city grew in size and density, the other did as well, but cultural and political setbacks have caused the cities to experience negative withdrawals. Our native ancestors settled along these areas for water, food, and shelter. It wasn’t until political power and modern adversity intervened that the current border conditions were created. Through my research and design iterations, I aim to shed light on the trends that have developed from these interventions and how to improve on them moving forward for the benefit of both countries.

As a student of landscape architecture, I feel a certain power and responsibility that is more formidable than some even realize. Our designs can influence people in ways that are invisible to the untrained eye because we have the ability to create significant change with deliberate research that informs the design process. I know this sounds like a romanticized rendition of what landscape architecture is, but seeing that opportunity has helped carry me forward into what I feel is my place in the profession.

I often think about the relationship between my self-identity and the passion that makes me fight for the protection and freedom of my heritage as I resist the powers that try to silence it. The issues surrounding border security are some of the most polarizing problems we face as a nation, but taking on such an immense challenge brings out the drive that I owe to the very culture that I’m fighting for. It’s important for me to use my role as a designer to challenge these controversies in a way that not only helps bridge the gap between different societies but also highlights the ability we have to inspire others to create change themselves. Although aspects of our country may seem uncertain, I truly believe we are at the beginning of a cultural revolution, and I will take this as an opportunity to be both an innovative designer and unapologetically Mexican-American.

Anjelica Sifuentes is entering her final year as a BLA candidate at Louisiana State University. She is a 2017 University Olmsted Scholar and the winner of LAF’s 2017 EDSA Minority Scholarship, which supports African American, Hispanic, Native American, and minority students of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds to continue their landscape architecture education.