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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Defining a Position Within the Discipline of Landscape Architecture

by Andrew Zientek, 2011 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

My fundamental interest within art and design is awareness. I am interested in the mechanics of experience and the subjectivity of perception. I am interested in how and why we notice and value certain things around us and not others. I am interested in the potential for objects and space to be catalysts towards new ways of seeing and being in our world.

This type of path is well worn within the art world, especially among those like Robert Irwin, Robert Rouschenberg, and John Cage. I want to bring this orientation and interest and apply it to the spaces we occupy in our daily lives. I strongly believe that the terrain we occupy daily has the potential to be a great artistic medium. I believe that using space to explore and highlight awareness has great value. This awareness is the first and most fundamental aspect of creating any type of true ecological or sustainable cultural practice. We have to be aware of something, value something, before we will take any action to preserve it. More fundamental for me than the ecological is the sheer amazement of experiencing new ways of seeing the world around us. Watching the level and quality of light fluctuate, or colors bounce off each other, or hearing a collection of noises as a symphony — these are wonderful things, around us everyday and accessible if we could only retune what we perceive. 

In addition and relation was my thesis work, entitled Nervous Landscapes, which focused on the evolutionary connection between landscape and our nervous systems. The places we inhabit have real, concrete affects on our nervous system and thus our thinking and feeling. I believe that as our profession has been scaling up from site to city to region to network and incorporating economics, ecology, sociology, etc., we also need to reclaim and incorporate the science of the body. We need to really understand what the materials we use and spaces we create do to us on a cellular level. We need to understand, for example, that cooler forms of light such as CFLs or LEDs have an effect on our melatonin production which in turn affects sleep schedules, cell division and a host of related bodily functions.  

Now, what to do with all of that? I, like thousands of designers before me, am faced with the challenge of taking the positions, research and interests I developed in graduate school and deploying them into the profession. I have a a hazy idea of what my position within the discipline and profession of landscape architecture may be, but I don’t think it will come into focus until I test it against real work. Until I manifest the ideas in real space and place. So I am starting my own practice.

With this blog post, I hope that some of you will write in the comments below or email me directly ( with stories from the field, words of wisdom that have helped you, opinions, tangential ideas or at least a funny joke. I believe that both of my related lines of interest have great value. The position within the discipline is there, but what is the position within the landscape architecture profession? Help.

Andrew Zientek received his Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in May. Through his practice, Terrain Studios, he continues his work and broadly champions the importance of landscape in our daily life.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Schoolyard Reform as Urban Greening

by Kate Tooke, 2011 National Olmsted Scholar

Nationwide approximately one-third of all school-age children attend urban public schools. For the most part the campuses of these schools mirror their surrounding city environments: high density neighborhoods mean that schools serving large student bodies have been built on small lots where outdoor space is tight and pavement is plentiful. In an era where education reform, public health and environmental issues are all frequent topics of public debate, these small urban schoolyards have come into focus as places of great potential. They are natural community centers where we can not only encourage active recreation, but also create diverse educational landscapes that foster future environmental stewards and contribute to the ecological health of the surrounding city. Across the country and worldwide grassroots groups are slowly transforming urban schoolyards into playgrounds, parks, edible landscapes and outdoor classrooms with widely variant benefits for children, communities and the environment.

01-ktookeschoolyards01My masters thesis research sought to understand the ways in which schoolyard reform movements contribute to urban greening efforts as well as how renovated schoolyards engage urban youth with urban ecology. As a former Boston public school teacher I chose to focus my study on the Boston Schoolyards Initiative (BSI), which has renovated 78 public schoolyards in the city since 1995. I examined 12 elementary schoolyards in depth, comparing pervious surfaces and canopy covers before and after renovations as well as diagramming and quantifying how vegetated spaces overlap with areas for play and learning in the new schoolyards.

01-ktookeschoolyards02The results indicated some valuable increase in canopy cover (after 30 years of projected growth) as a result of BSI renovations, but little to no impact on the amount of pervious surfacing on school sites. In other words, most renovations in the sample group included some tree plantings, but paved areas generally remained paved. In addition, I found that although play and learning space accounts for over 50% (average) of renovated schoolyards, less than 8% of this play and learning space generally overlaps with ecologically-rich vegetated areas (usually a well-designed but fenced outdoor classroom). I divided the schoolyards into 5 typologies based on their quantities and configurations of play versus vegetated space, and my thesis ultimately recommended one schoolyard typology upon which to model future renovations (see figures).


Informal interviews with BSI staff, schoolyard designers and school personnel revealed concerns about maintenance, vandalism and safety as the primary reasons that more vegetated and sustainable features were not included in most renovations. My thesis identified a pressing need for a culture of small, safe-to-fail experiments as a way to begin addressing these commonly-faced challenges.

As the 2011 National Olmsted Scholar I plan to develop a design toolkit focused on making ecosystem services transparent, educational and sustainable features of urban schoolyards. I will travel to research successful features at targeted schools around the nation as well as engage school communities and schoolyard designers in dialogue about what systems could work. The research will form the basis for practical, replicable plans of small experiments which can be implemented during renovations and monitored by students as part of an integrated academic curriculum. Please stay tuned to this blog series for updates on my research and the developing toolkit.

Kate graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in May with a Masters in Landscape Architecture. She works at Dodson Associates in Ashfield, MA and is currently engaged in designing an outdoor classroom and natural playscape for a new public elementary school in the city of Westfield, MA.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Connecting Eugene - Downtown | Campus | Waterfront

by Christo Brehm, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

During the spring of 2009, about eight months before I was selected as the 2010 Olmsted Scholar at the University of Oregon, I became involved in a significant land use debate affecting valuable University-owned property on the banks of the Willamette River. I am writing this blog posting to give readers an update about that work.

First, the essential background information: In April 2009, a planning and design studio led by professors Ron Lovinger and Thomas Oles at the University of Oregon developed a compelling master plan to connect the University campus to downtown Eugene by way of the Willamette River waterfront. During the studio, we became aware of a University project to enter into a long term ground lease with a private developer to construct a 200-car surface parking lot and generic office building along the banks of the river, precisely at the nexus of that connection between the campus and downtown. The 4.3 acre construction site is part of a larger 67-acre area of riverfront property called the Riverfront Research Park. The research park, as crafted in the mid 1980s, was intended to be a thriving suburban-style office park but has been largely unsuccessful. Only a fraction of the land was ever developed.


A team of faculty, students, and community partners (now known as Connecting Eugene) responded by organizing and facilitating a series of stakeholder meetings. Connecting Eugene also initiated public dialogue by appealing a conditional use permit timeline extension with the City of Eugene. We then helped to mobilize the University senate and student government to pass a series of formal resolutions calling for responsible development on the University-owned riverfront property. Even in the face of formal resolutions from its Senate, several academic departments, and hundreds of students, the University administration feels bound to bring the proposed project to completion without updating the outdated 1989 master plan.


Earlier this month, the University of Oregon student government awarded our group, Connecting Eugene, $56,000 to support a new master planning process for the university owned riverfront property.  We will be collaborating with the American Society of Landscape Architects UO student chapter beginning with a design charrette in April 2011 at the annual HOPES conference in Eugene (Holistic Options for Planet Earth Sustainability). Based on the work that comes out of that largely student focused charrette, we will organize a larger scale public charrette during the coming summer months with the assistance of supporting faculty and practicing professionals.  

We are looking for guest speakers and experts whom we can bring to the Oregon campus from across the country to share new ways of understanding our riverfront property, to give public lectures on riverfront development, and to help inform appropriate design options for this valuable riverfront property.

Christo Brehm has completed coursework for the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Oregon, and is now in the final phase of his masters thesis. He is assisting with teaching and research in his department and seeking opportunities to gain professional practice experience. 

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Waste Landscapes

by Caitlin Harrigan, 2010 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Simultaneously fascinating and repelling, waste landscapes reveal much about the ways in which we order and respond to our environments, and how we will evolve with those environments in the future. I believe that landscape architects have much to offer to the design of waste landscapes. By shaping these typically marginalized places in an ecologically revealing way, we can begin to unveil and recognize the destructive effects of our consumptive lifestyles. But more importantly, we can create spaces that inspire people to contemplate and recognize the value of environmental quality as well as the development of strategies that enhance ecological function. As places that facilitate meaningful human interaction and activity focused on recycling, waste and reuse operations can galvanize a group of people around a common cause. They can help facilitate the paradigm shift from mindless consumption to thoughtful conservation. There is immense potential for waste places to act as local rallying points – spaces that remind us that there is such a thing as enough.

harrigan-image-1-bsmThe Marpole WasteWorks: An eco-revelatory precinct

As a graduate student, I studied the intersection between waste, landscape, and design while working on my thesis, The Marpole WasteWorks. I considered an alternative way of thinking about waste landscapes by viewing garbage as a potential, rather than a problem. I proposed redesigning a municipal waste transfer station into an eco-revelatory materials recovery precinct that diverted refuse into economically-viable reuse and recycling ventures. The benefits of the redesign included increased public awareness regarding consumption and waste generation, reduced waste transport costs, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced demand for landfill space, and improved site ecological functioning.

harrigan-image-2The Marpole WasteWorks: Elevated walkway / viewing gallery constructed out of repurposed shipping containers

The redesign acted as a publicly visible and accessible model of sustainable municipal infrastructure. It employed eco-revelatory design principles to highlight currently hidden processes as a means of reconnecting community members to solid waste and operational systems. The precinct addressed the need to embrace a paradigm shift – one that champions sustainability principles and reconnects people’s behaviours and actions with their physical consequences.

This past September, I traveled to South America to stretch my legs and explore a continent that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. While in Boliva, I passed through the small town of Uyuni, a once-crucial mineral transport junction high in the Andean plateau. When Bolivia lost its seaports to Chile in the Pacific War, the national railway col- lapsed, and with it, Uyuni’s economic importance.

harrigan-image-3-m81Train graveyard in Uyuni, Bolivia

Locomotives rolled to a final stop in the outskirts of town, where the skeletal remains of hundreds of rusted-out steam engines still sit. Every year, this train graveyard is visited by thousands of tourists, including myself. While I walked the old tracks and explored the corroding train carcasses, the surreal beauty of this entirely unique waste landscape struck me. To think, this place has become both an attraction and amenity by virtue of the waste that sits here.

Waste landscapes come in all forms — landfills, transfer stations, train graveyards — and all possess qualities that can provoke, inspire, and delight.  Their inherent disorder is compelling. As landscape architects, we have the ability to illuminate the significance of the disarray through sensitive design intention. The aesthetic, ecological, and educational opportunities buried within are remarkable. Let’s dig in.

Caitlin Harrigan received her Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of British Columbia in May. She is now back in Canada after four months of traveling in South America and is currently updating her portfolio.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Movement as Experience

by Elise Hubbard, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

Streets are influential public spaces that hold potential to positively affect people’s daily routines.

ehubbardimage1-6czBeing a recent graduate from Kansas State University, and new to the working professional world at BNIM in Kansas City, my walk to work has become one of the most valued parts of my day. I love the simple morning atmosphere filling my lungs and stimulating my senses. As my body moves, so also does my mind to engage in the world around me. Walking to work is a part of my day that supports “an expanded state of awareness, accountability for daily actions, and the potential for a richer spectrum of experience for individuals and communities” (SlowLab).

ehubbardimage2I am passionate about the role of streets in urban life because I see how much the street environment can affect people’s daily lives. I believe bicycle and pedestrian circulation is a slower-pace transportation mode that allows for deeper, more meaningful human experience and perception of the world outside ourselves. For these qualities to surface in human experience, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure must be an integral part of the transportation network. As integral parts of the transportation network, safe and enjoyable bicycle and pedestrian circulation can foster meaningful time in transit through more natural speeds of engagement and active presence.  

It is my hope that Landscape Architects and other Planning and Design Professionals can strengthen meaningful experience in transit. Elizabeth Meyer says, “I do not believe that design can change society, I do believe it can alter an individual’s consciousness and perhaps assist in restructuring her priorities and values” (Meyer 2008). Movement corridors should be wonderfully designed landscapes because they are public places used by people every day. I believe the design of these public places holds great potential to positively influence people’s mind, body and spirit.

Although I do believe design can inhibit or assist in positively impacting people’s lives, improving the quality of people’s lives ultimately comes down to being aware of the world outside ourselves. As we become more aware of the world outside ourselves, we begin to meet the needs of people and improve the quality of life around us. I appreciate how Allan Jacobs describes community: “people acting and interacting to achieve in concert what they might not achieve alone” (Jacobs 1993). We should strive to live in greater community, engaging with and serving people around us. I believe that landscape architects, as a body of designers who love, respect and care for the environment, have the power and responsibility to assist in re-centering human consciousness to see, hear, taste and feel the beauty of life within and around us.