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Olmsted Scholar Feature: The Los Angeles Riverscape - An Urban Estuary

By Tina Chee, 2012 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Urban Rivers. With only concentrated periods of rainfall during limited times of the year in cities such as Los Angeles, how might we reconceive of and reutilize our now concrete and channelized urban rivers with multiplicity as we reconsider issues of lack of open green space and connectivity within post-industrial cities while still providing essential services and responding to environmental and ecological systems? This is the challenge that we must respond to.

This past spring, my studio examined the relationship between landscape and infrastructure, and the potential to transform single-purposed infrastructure into part recreational parkscape, part infrastructural urbanism, part ecological machine, and part water management and flood mitigation engineering. This design proposal seeks to express the state of landscape as a multi-purposed and multi-faceted experiential and infrastructural network; a landscape that creates urban connectivity, that is spatially experiential, that restores our connection to nature in the city, and that creates a multitude of habitat types while serving functional requirements for essential services such as flood mitigation, temporal water detention, and the treatment of urban runoff.

The Los Angeles River is re-envisioned as an urban estuary — the confluence of people and natural systems into a cohesive network that unites neighborhoods and ultimately the entire city. Our connection to nature is re-established by making access to this hidden resource as permeable as feasible, and by creating a network of meandering experiential pathways within the river itself. Neighborhood pocket parks reclaim adjacent vacant parcels along the existing bike path and further integrate the river with its existing fabric. The existing concrete banks are replaced with tiered upper and lower park zones, which create intimate opportunities to inhabit and engage the river edge as well as public spaces to gather along the river bank with protected troughs for vegetation.

chee01-riverviewA variety of natural habitats are created for land and aquatic life through a cluster of islands and pools of varying elevations and depths that treat water as the living organism above, beneath, and within its surface matter. The islands are part concrete, part porous concrete, part custom concrete block revetement system and serve multiple functions. They direct water into separate channels to create habitat, create opportunities for active and passive recreation, and assist in the mitigation of flood waters. The upper portions are made of open-celled concrete blocks of various sized apertures, which allow vegetation to nest in and can receive rising flood water, temporarily detaining the additional water until the flood water level subsides. The bottom portions are made of porous concrete, and through gravity, the detained water is slowly released to support the surrounding aquatic habitat and serve as additional water supply for the various planted ecotones. Through the development of a three channel system, rapid, meandering, and placid water velocities further encourage various habitat environments. The three channel system also allows for a variable flood plain, which increases the effective channel width as needed.

chee02-diagramThe configuration and treat- ment of urban edges are conceived of as curvilinear and convoluted compressed zones which foster habitat diversity in plant and wildlife. Ecological processes are incorporated to treat urban stormwater runoff through a series of phytoremediation filtration terraces, basins, and runnels. Natural phenomena such as erosion, scouring, and sand deposition are explored as dynamic processes which inform the morphology of a new channel configuration.

The islands, pools, and barrier reefs serve as sculptural armatures which engage these powerful processes and provide the framework that allows nature to re-establish, take hold, and self evolve in this harsh urban environment while assisting in the redirection and mediation of flood waters during storms. Sand and sediment deposition are encouraged as means of natural succession to this man-made intervention. The design itself evolves beyond its initial framework through the forces of nature. 

We took a very unique approach to study natural phenomena of water flow, scouring, and sand deposition. These natural processes were physically explored using a 1”=30’ physical model with 2X vertical distortion. Design models were CNC milled and tested with running water at various water flows with ground walnut shells to simulate the effects of water velocity, water scouring, and sand deposition. Colored dye was used to highlight the actual water effects and flow directions. Kayaking speeds were taken as a measure of water velocity. Water depth measurements were taken at various points at the various water velocities. The results of the water tests were recorded, analyzed, and used to further inform the design.


Tina Chee is a MLA candidate at the University of Southern California and will graduate in May 2013. This project was created as part of instructor Alex Robinson’s spring semester studio. This summer, Tina participated in the SWA internship program which focused on the definition and creation of an Eco District in San Francisco. She is currently working on her thesis which will explore strategies that operate at the juncture of landscape, urbanism, architecture, infrastructure, and social programming for re-envisioning the nature of Los Angeles.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: A Landscape Architect in Coal Country

By Marin Braco, 2012 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist 

As an undergraduate, I studied art history where I became interested in the field of environmental art. While in school, I had no idea that this interest would land me a job that would involve understanding the geologic formation of coal, learning how to read a map of 600 feet of abandoned mines, and knowing terms like ‘culm’ and the difference between anthracite and bituminous. I was serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer working on a coal mine reclamation project with environmental artist Patricia Johanson in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was during this experience that I decided that my interests lay beyond the confines of museum walls, and soon after the completion of my term, I applied to graduate school for landscape architecture.

Three years later, I returned to the same branch of AmeriCorps, the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team (ACCWT), for my capstone project. Living and working directly with a community in northeastern Ohio, I developed a master plan which aims to convert an abandoned iron works into a multi-functioning park. At the heart of this 35-acre site are 4 rows of beehive coke ovens, 205 ovens in total, one of the largest installations of its kind in the United States.

braco01-700wCherry Valley Coke Ovens and the Coke Oven Advisory Commission.

During the summer of 2011, I worked in Leetonia, Ohio doing research, site inventory, meeting with community members and professionals, and drawing as a way to document and synthesize the information I gathered. I was able to see the site through a number of lenses, meeting with hydrologists, engineers, geographers, urban foresters, and local historians. One day I walked around the site with an engineer who was able to zoom in on structural details of the site’s infrastructure. The very next day, I went on a two-hour drive with a geography professor, giving me a ‘regional context tour’. As we drove along the steel corridor of Youngstown, he pointed out abandoned mills and lakes that were created in order to supply water for steel-making processes. I also heard memories and stories from community members. Oral history reports completed in the early 1980s were essential to understanding the site from the viewpoint of the people that worked there. I held community meetings throughout the process to share the information I was gathering and to receive input.

Taking inspiration from the work and process of Johanson, my approach to this master plan is founded in placed-based design, drawing on the character of the site and the community that surrounds it. The design seeks to make both historical and ecological processes visible. Drainage across the site will address issues of contamination from both stormwater and acid mine drainage. Ecological management will maintain different stages of succession. Historic processes tell narratives relevant on a national, regional, and also very local level — from the American story of immigration, to the regional importance of the iron and steel industry and the strong link between Cherry Valley Coke Ovens and the formation of this town. This project aims to weave into the fabric of the community, allowing small interventions to unfold over time, with continued support from the advisory commission, AmeriCorps volunteers, local universities, and professionals. In doing so, this project has the potential to be a catalyst for the revitalization of the downtown.

braco03-700wThe master plan's ecological strategy emphasizes the evolution of ecological systems that have taken over the site since industry left. Similarly, the architectural strategy aims to make visible the element of time by preserving the ovens in varying degrees of restoration and decay.

I am not the first landscape architect to volunteer with the ACCWT, and I certainly hope I am not the last. By working with AmeriCorps, our skills can extend to communities that may not otherwise have access to such services. At the same time, it gives young designers a chance to develop and grow as they gain experience doing meaningful work. I am fully aware that I may never have the chance to know a site, its history and community so intimately ever again, and am very grateful for such an opportunity.

Marin recently graduated with a Master of Landscape Architecture from State University of New York - College of Environmental Science and Forestry. If you are interested in learning more about opportunities for landscape architects in the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, you can contact her at or vistit the ACCWT website:

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Trails on Tribal Lands

by Nick Deyo, 2011 Olmsted Scholar

For my Masters degree work I was fortunate to collaborate with a team of students at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. Our project helped community members and tribal employees with the planning and design of a non-motorized trail system in the Jocko Valley, on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. My team included two landscape architecture students: Robin Burke and myself; Meredith Bohdan, an Environmental Policy and Planning student; and two Behavior, Education, and Communication students: Ann Kelley and Brittney Van Der Werff. Working with this team helped me realize the true interdisciplinary nature of landscape architecture. We worked closely with the Jocko Valley Trails Committee and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal (CSKT) government, through meetings and public outreach, to create trail design recommendations. On a broader scale, we researched the current status of trail systems on American Indian reservations throughout the United States.

jocko1Sketch-up models helped illustrate pedestrian bridge options.

During May of 2010, we spent an intensive four weeks working on the project in Arlee, Montana, a town of 600 people located at the southern end of the Flathead Reservation. We engaged the community in trail planning activities, conducted site visits, and met with project partners. We distributed a survey to gauge community interest in trails development, hosted an open house, and conducted Youth Visioning Workshops with over 150 high school, middle school, and 4th grade students.

Site visits acquainted us with areas of specific design concern, including the Demonstration Reach portion of the Jocko River Restoration Area, where the CSKT Natural Resources Department sought to develop an interpretive trail system. The Demonstration Reach marks the beginning of 22 miles of state-of-the-art river restoration work the tribe is performing, using natural channel design along with passive restoration techniques, to create habitat for endangered bull trout. Other areas of concern included Highway 93’s Jocko River Bridge, a dangerous 400-foot span that lacks pedestrian facilities.

jocko2For the Demonstration Reach trail designs, ink drawings conveyed the rustic feel of the area.jocko3A simple log bridge over the Jocko River.

After returning to Michigan we spent the next year developing three conceptual interpretive trail designs, supported by detailed site inventories and analyses. These options worked within CSKT’s constraints to showcase the impressive ecological restoration work the tribe had accomplished and educate about the natural history and conservation needs of bull trout. We analyzed the data we gathered from community activities to provide specific design solutions including pedestrian crossing options for the Jocko River Bridge area, trail alignments, and planting designs.

Finally, inspired by the leadership of the Arlee community, we wrote a paper entitled Trails on Tribal Land: Understanding the Challenges and Benefits of Trail Planning and Development for American Indian Communities. This paper was a compilation of both literature review and interviews conducted with natural resource managers, scientists, planners, and other decision makers from 22 reservations throughout the United States. The full project is available here:

Nick Deyo received his Masters of Landscape Architecture from the University of Michigan in May 2011. He lives in Tucson, Arizona where he is engaged with conservation planning and ecological restoration projects working for the NGO Sky Island Alliance.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: An Urban Farm in Downtown Orlando

by Chris Merritt, 2011 Olmsted Scholar

As a designer, if you look around your city at all the vacant wasted space, it is hard to resist imagining what could be. And, you may be surprised how many people have similar ideas. With the momentum of the local food movement, an increasingly popular solution is the temporary community garden. Growing fresh locally-sourced food provides health, environmental, social and cultural benefits that are a boon to any neighbor or restaurant.

Orlando, Florida has a growing foundation of people and resources behind its local food movement. Chefs, community-supported agriculture (CSAs), food truck owners, journalists, social entrepreneurs and local “foodies” alike, have all been advocating and pursuing a sustainable local food economy. The downtown area has a high concentration of working young professionals growing more aware of slow food and the systems that empower the contrasting industrial food economy that is in place.

As I have become familiar with the area, I have noticed a huge opportunity at the core of the food system: the potential for urban farming. Using my passion and interest in urban agriculture and productive landscapes in general, I began working to fill the gap between community interest and a local food system to support it. I focused on the Lake Eola area of downtown Orlando, which has a robust Sunday farmer’s market and a high concentration of creative, intelligent, and like-minded young people who care about their community and their health.

urbanfarm1Mapping of local farms and gardens across Orlando with the Eola Urban Farm shown in blue.

Surveying vacant parcels for urban farming opportunities was fast-tracked once I connected with an innovative and motivated developer in the Orlando area, who understood that his monthly operations and maintenance costs could be reduced by allowing us to convert the vacant land into a productive use. After navigating the city’s red tape through a cumbersome permiting and legal process, the Eola Urban Farm was born and is ready for growing.

Despite these success, a number of unanswered questions remain that are the source of continual debate:

Business and Operations Plans
I work full-time as a landscape architect, and my other partners also have permanent jobs. Although we want to be involved in the farming and community outreach, who will manage and maintain the farm every day? Formulating the right business plan has been difficult. We have had an outpouring of interest from community members, however, defining exactly what the farm is and how it operates has been a difficult concept for the commuity to grasp. Our vision is not for a community garden, but a privately-operated urban farm that supplements the food supply of selected restaurants and businesses, with occasional community, volunteer, and education days on the farm.

Organic vs. Conventional Farming
This topic has generated the most debate amongst interested community members. The team agrees that the ideal scenario is a beautiful, thriving organic urban farm, yet some have voiced the opinion that conventional farming methods might be better to get the farm established. As Michael Pollan, eloquently discusses in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we may buy organic produce shipped 1,500 miles from an industrial organic farm when we could have supported a local food system that uses conventional farming methods — which is more sustainable?

urbanfarm2Recycled cargo shipping containers help to solve the temporal issues of urban agriculture systems.

Although urban farming is a creative and innovative use for much of our uncertain and underutilized land, how do we design for its temporary nature? The Eola Urban Farm will make use of recycled cargo shipping containers that have been re-fabricated for the farm and can be used for equipment storage, rotating art galleries, hydroponics, and rain water harvesting. They will incorporate green roof systems to maximize the food yield of the site.

The greatest advantage of these containers is mobility, since the farm does have a timeline. When a hotel eventually decides to build on the site, the developer will move forward with those plans. The “mobile farm” design will allow the developer to establish another vacant lot as the new downtown farm, without destroying the operating and distribution systems that have been established. This model has the potential to invigorate various areas of the city over the life span of the farm. It will become a mobile entity that has tangible food and health benefits and delivers vital social and cultural benefits.

A major goal of the Eola Urban Farm is to raise awareness and advocate for local food and urban agriculture in our downtown. Part of this process is creating change within the city government to make it easier for these systems to be established. Throughout my research and outreach, many experienced farmers and gardeners have told me the same thing: “Growing food should be a simple process — do not make it overly complex. With proper growing conditions you can throw seeds in the ground and your food will grow.” As we have gathered bright and motivated individuals to help run the farm, we plan to have healthy spring and summer growing and harvest seasons.


Chris Merritt is a landscape designer at AECOM in Orlando, Florida. Previously, Chris spent one year with Sasaki Associates in Boston. He graduated from the Purdue University Landscape Architecture program, where he was recognized with the ASLA Student Merit Award in addition to being an LAF University Olmsted Scholar.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: St. Croix and Understanding of Place

by Sarah Nitchman, 2011 Olmsted Scholar

Last November, I found myself on a plane to St. Croix for the second time in a little over a year. The first time I’d visited the island I was in the company of my senior studio class as we embarked on a five-day site visit to prepare for a semester project of exploring masterplan concepts for one of the island’s National Parks.


My involvement in that project extended beyond that semester studio, and in late October I was offered the opportunity to return to St. Croix and work with local stakeholders to increase cooperation and community involvement in the design process. While I learned many things during my five weeks on the island, the concept of place was one topic that stood out and continues to resonate with me.

top2-smI have been thinking about place for a while now. As designers of places, I think this is key to our work as a profession, and thinking deeply about the issue of place can only sharpen our ability to respect and enhance it. I’ve been fortunate to watch my understanding of St Croix shift and grow from the first time I heard someone utter its name all the way up to the end of my 5-week stay. Each form of interaction led to a different level of understanding of place.

Some of the strangest moments to me after being on the island for 5 weeks were when I came across a place that I had previously visited with my class. top3-smDespite how eager I had been to understand St. Croix, I was always struck by my impression of the place then, and my knowledge of it now. I had a similar experience the day I interviewed a local woman named Francillia about the Easter camping tradition on the beach. Before that conversation, my impression of the campers was that they were rowdy, littering, and although fun-loving had a general disrespect for the beach and the natural areas around it. I was amazed to realize that, on the contrary, the tradition was her family’s way of engaging the natural world — a choice to stop everyday life, forgo electricity and top4-smdistractions, and form a community under the stars.

This encounter made me realize that even with the best of intentions people can be misunderstood and perceptions blown far out of proportion. The learning curve in understanding a place is absolutely fascinating, but it is also somewhat frightening because I am beginning to realize how much effort is required to move far enough along that curve to truly understand the places in which we design. As Landscape Architects if we do not understand the place, how can we design spaces that work within the culture they reside?

Place has remained a resonating question in my mind. After St. Croix, I left my home in Queens, New York and moved across the country to South Lake Tahoe, California to work with Design Workshop. Once again I find myself in a completely different place, with a different landscape and culture. Several of the projects that I am currently involved in are sites that I have never stepped foot on and only know through photos, aerials and maps. Given the practical parameters we face as designers — time, cost and distance being the most significant — I believe the essential question that needs to be asked is: How do we make the most of the time we have on a site in order to develop a rigorous understanding of place that can reliably drive analysis and design? I believe that it is through finding solutions to this question that we will be enabled to create powerful, place-based designs.

Sarah Nitchman recieved her Bachelors degree in Landscape Architecture from Rutgers University in May 2011. After graduating she spent five weeks in both Germany and St. Croix and is currently interning with Design Workshop’s Lake Tahoe office.