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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Community Engagement: A Design Tool for Cultural Landscape Networks

by Denise Wood, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

wood-pic-1-c9sDenise Wood and Justin Barnett note the pros and cons of Harborview Park schematics.

During my senior studio, I had the honor of working on a project with the City of Cape May, NJ.  We redesigned three underused parks and developed a city pedestrian and bike trail. We held a series of four community meetings at different stages of the design process to determine the program that would best fit the community. This was our first opportunity to design based on feedback from community members; the lessons that transpired during this journey were truly remarkable. I realized how important community engagement can be during the design process.

Throughout this experience we learned about building relationships while listening to the end users and responding with design solutions. Members of the community learned from the experience, too. They learned more about what made their city special, and about aspects of sustainable design. We led discussions about rain gardens, native plants and the ecological uniqueness of this special town, which helped many citizens to better understand what landscape architects do. Even community members who were unable to attend meetings in person were able to participate, as each meeting was covered in the local newspaper. It was a very profound and touching experience to get to know this community and it influenced my own goals and desires.

wood-pic-2-r96Kali Whyte and Denise Wood lead a break out group discussion.

I have known all along that I wanted to be a landscape architect to make a difference in people’s lives by creating sustainable communities. Once I was engulfed in the magic of this Victorian beach town and its heartwarming community members, I knew that I had found my calling and I would strive to listen to what the community wanted in the future when designing public spaces. Taking this approach, I can reach many people within a community, and help them better understand their special and unique local ecology. Also, I want to educate the public on the role of landscape architects in creating sustainable communities, and help members of those communities realize what they can do to make a difference, even in their own backyards.

Community engagement in the design process benefits everyone.  It’s crucial we listen to what the end users want in order to best serve their needs. Community engagement can be a powerful educational design tool.

Denise Wood earned her Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture from Temple University School of Environmental Design in May.  She is currently residing in Reading, PA as a sustainable landscape designer. Click for more information on this project and the City of Cape May, NJ.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Sustainability and Water Quality, An International Topic

by Leslie Batten, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

batten-pic-2University of Waikato hosted the 7th International Conference on Sustainability

I started the New Year by attending the 7th annual International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability held at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Each day of the three-day conference was filled with an array of presentations that covered both academic and professional work. Attendees and presenters from 28 countries shared their disciplinary theories and practices about how to inspire, and cultivate sustainability on a local scale. The conference was an opportunity to broaden this body of work to the global scale by encouraging collaboration between participants and across disciplines. Some of the diverse topics included: sustainability in the fashion industry, low-carbon technology, migrant mine workers in South Africa, traditional Malay cultural practices as models for sustainability, improving water quality sampling methodology to improve water supply in Israel, Marine Protected Areas in Indonesia, the effects and opportunities for Eco-tourism in Africa, how to teach sustainability, cultural consumption in Slovakia, Chinese Medicine in modern culture, and transit oriented development in Taipei. The rich, multidisciplinary themes of the conference showcase the breadth of research and professional fields that are currently working towards sustainability, and on a global scale; an encouraging prospect! These topics and many more can be found at the conference website: On Sustainability

I presented my thesis work through the Green Futures Research and Design Lab at the University of Washington’s Department of Landscape Architecture titled: Waterfront Stormwater Solutions. My thesis focuses on transforming current waterfront stormwater systems that directly convey polluted stormwater without prior treatment into the Puget Sound, a Pacific Northwest icon and home to charismatic orca whales and endangered salmon. Scientists and watershed managers conclude that stormwater is the leading cause of degradation to Puget Sound. The current practice of stormwater treatment often allows entry of a soup of toxins that arise from everyday human land use activities such as oil and gas dripped on pavement, pet waste, fertilizers and pesticides from our lawns and farms (and in some cases greenroofs), heavy metals from cars and industrial pollutants. As a result, aquatic life is devastated, the shellfish industry (a state economic driver) is impaired, and people are told to stay away from the water.

My thesis will continue my current work of addressing such an egregious issue. I will spend the next six months refining alternative design prototypes for local municipalities to collect, clean, cool and harvest stormwater at the water’s edge. I will work to develop alternative end-of-the-pipe systems that incorporate people and wildlife by removing pollutants, restoring habitat for aquatic wildlife, and inviting people to play, relax, learn, enjoy and access their waterfront. I am particularly excited about the multifaceted technical and social aspects required to complete this project. Technical aspects like engineering, hydrology, soil chemistry, horticulture and marine ecology are paired equally alongside human experience, art, education and recreation. At the end of the thesis process, I intend to develop a toolbox of solutions that other municipalities throughout the region, and perhaps beyond, may use to treat stormwater and to improve their waterfronts, such that outfalls become design opportunities.

Stormwater pollution is not limited to the Puget Sound. It is an international issue as evidenced by presentations at the Sustainability Conference and articles in the associated Sustainability Journal. For instance, the floods in Australia occurred while I was attending the conference. Since then, ongoing flooding has caused a tremendous amount of environmental, social and economic damage over a short period of time. Pollutants washed from urban and rural surfaces into the Coral Sea may greatly impact the Great Barrier Reef, an already sensitive ecosystem. Concurrent with this environmental challenge were presentations from other contexts. Huynh Viet Khai from Kyushu University, Japan reports that water pollution from industrial activities in the upper Me Kong watershed has impacted downstream rice production in Vietnam. It is likely that stormwater runoff is just one of several contributing sources to the Me Kong’s substantial water quality issues. Another presentation by Dr Yuming Wen of the University of Guam further substantiates that human land use is correlated to water quality with forested and natural areas showing zero to limited impacts. Lastly, Abel Enrique Navarro of New York University presented his research developing a reusable magnetized algae that attracts and removes toxic artificial dyes from water. As a biologically based filtration mechanism this process might serve well to remove stormwater conveyed contaminants. Several other notable presentations regarding water quality were submitted to the conference and while they did not appear in the final agenda, their work may appear in the conference journal, the Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability or as a virtual presentation available at the conference website listed above.

batten-pic-1Water tanks with rainwater connections are a common feature in New Zealand homes.

During session breaks, I was fortunate to discuss local water issues with attendees from New Zealand. I was impressed on a previous bike tour with all the rainwater cisterns and wanted to commend the Kiwi’s for their foresight. This proved to be a heated topic. While they relied on large tank systems (cisterns) as opposed to municipal water for their water supply, they do not rely solely on rainwater alone. Rainwater only tops off the tank supply. Instead, Kiwi’s refill the tanks by a water delivery truck. So far many had already refilled their tanks more than once this summer due to the droughts (and by not adapting their use to sustain the low volumes) at quite an expense. While tanks may be a result of limited municipal infrastructure, it is a feature that can greatly assist efforts to decrease harmful stormwater runoff by intercepting the rain and reusing it. This can also help with water conservation by using rainwater instead of importing freshwater from other sources where withdrawals might be competing with wildlife needs or other natural processes. A greywater recycling system would further reduce water demand and showcase a complete water system.

The bodies of work presented at the conference suggest that it will take a variety of solutions to achieve water quality goals. Until we work out source control mechanisms to prevent water pollution in the first place, we will need to rely on treatment mechanisms such as Waterfront Stormwater Solutions that will provide additional benefits to wildlife and humans while simultaneously treating stormwater. 

The next International Sustainability Conference will be held in Vancouver, BC next January. Maybe I’ll see you there! 


Olmsted Scholar Feature: On Participating in Community

by Christopher Jennette, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

jennette-a-c06As a graduate student for three years, I spent many hours trying to better understand what we, as landscape architects, mean when we say the word “community”.  At once geographical, cultural, and somewhat intangible, the concept of community is ever-present in our design thinking, process, and language. Landscape architects spend a good deal of time thinking about communities: how to create and enhance them, to engage with and inspire them, and to help them find and express their identities. This past year, after making my first big move since graduate school, I realized something about communities that I had always known, but that somehow escaped me over the course of so many nights waxing academic — we live in them.  

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts this past spring, I packed my life into a few boxes and moved south to Louisville, Kentucky. Not knowing much about Louisville, I was a bit apprehensive about the transition from the snowy, familiar sights of Northampton, Massachusetts to a city best known for horse racing, baseball bats, and bourbon. I did some research, and learned that Louisville is a city of roughly 1.26 million residents (metro). It has an extensive (and expanding) parks system including a number of Olmsted-designed gems right near downtown, many great restaurants showcasing locally grown ingredients, and a thriving arts community. Upon arriving, I was excited to explore my new home, and to make discoveries on-foot instead of on-internet.

jennette-bThough some of what I discovered here was expected: that thing called southern hospitality I’d heard so much about but never thought was real, barbeque the likes of which New England has never seen, and more days above 90 degrees than I care to relive — some of my discoveries came as a truly pleasant surprise. Neighbors raising chickens in my neighborhood just east of downtown, crowded farmer’s markets replete with beautiful, fresh produce, meat and poultry throughout the week, a community garden just around the corner, and bright orange 95-gallon recycling bins in front of nearly every business on my walk to the bus stop, to name a few.

Last month, I joined Louisville’s 9th District “Green Triangle Coordination Team” - a diverse group of local citizens, professionals, and business owners that will serve as a jennette-cresource to identify, enhance, develop, support, and connect green initiatives throughout the district in which I live. One aspect of Landscape Architecture that has always excited me is the potential for our profession to be a key linkage — to coordinate and connect many different groups of people and ideas. I’m excited about the prospect of wholeheartedly engaging with my community, and working to reveal, connect, and celebrate the great things that are happening here.  

Becoming part of the coordination team got me thinking about the role that we play as professionals in our local communities, and it also brought up a couple of questions that I thought blog readers might like to ponder along with me. Though we, as landscape architects, have spent a great deal of time refining our skills so as to better support our instincts as designers and thinkers, are we putting those skills to use in our own communities? Do we, as trained, talented creative people, have a responsibility not just to our profession, but to our neighbors? In the coming year, I encourage you all to seek out the wealth of opportunity right outside your door, and to put your hard earned skills to work for the good of the community in which you live.

Chris Jennette earned his Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts in May.  He is currently living and working in Louisville, Kentucky as a landscape and graphic designer.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Dynamic Design Communication's Role in Community Participation

by Travis Flohr, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

flohr-pic-1Circleville Farm (State College, PA) juxtaposed by sprawl.

Decreased water, soil and air quality; changes in microclimate; and the loss of prime agricultural farmland are all issues associated with sprawl. Sprawl disrupts social networks and communities, and negatively changes environmental and ecologic patterns. What legacy are these development patterns leaving on the landscape? These complex but interrelated issues require interdisciplinary and collaborative problem solving. While landscape architects identified this important change in planning 30+ years ago and have incorporated these approaches into community design, the planning process has changed little. Plans and designs are still commonly communicated with static images and jargon filled, text-based policies leaving many community members unable to comprehend the broader impacts of their decisions and limited opportunity to provide feedback.

People are willing to choose alternatives to sprawl if given the opportunity and provided with adequate information in a way that is understandable. To understand and facilitate changes in the design and planning of these developments, new tools can be implemented that better communicate issues and present viable alternatives.

Quality writing is the foundation of written, verbal, and visual communication (including but not limited to design graphics, animations, movies, etc), but it is only one tool at our disposal. We are in the midst of a communication shift. We can now use technology to instantly communicate with millions of people. Is this shift for the better, and how might we use it successfully within the profession?

flohr-pic-2Master thesis interactive, three-dimensional test website.

Traditional methods can be augmented by new technology, research, and learning agendas that will help better communicate the connections and relationships between the complex issues involved in community planning and design. GeoDesign is one such agenda that pushes for the early use of analysis in the design process to vette early design concepts for suitability. Early GeoDesign tools were meant for the designer.  As the technology evolves, these tools are starting to be integrated into participatory processes; however, these tools are still in their infancy. By tapping into internet technologies, social media, and GIS, we have the potential to:

  • Capture a wider audience
  • Provide a greater depth of information on designs and planning decisions earlier in the process
  • Use interactive, multimedia enriched content to better facilitate communication of complex ideas
  • Integrate and capture community held ideals and values
  • Influence public decision making that emphasizes environmental, social, and geographic features that minimize undesirable impacts

The development of these tools will be critical in expanding community engagement in an increasingly complex and learning centered society.

Travis Flohr is currently involved in numerous research projects while finishing his Master’s Thesis in Landscape Architecture at The Pennsylvania State University.  This fall he plans on pursuing a PhD at the University of Colorado. Starting February 1, 2011 if you wish you may participate in this ongoing study by visiting He can be contacted at

Olmsted Scholar Feature: "Beyond Pompeii" - Designing with Archaeology

by Bryan D. Harrison, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

This semester I had the opportunity to participate in a design workshop with several other US and Italian universities in Castellammare di Stabia, Italy. The eight-day seminar in September was hosted at the Vesuvian Institute and coordinated by the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation. Stabiae was an ancient Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD along with Pompeii and many other cities around the Bay of Naples. The RAS Foundation is raising public interest in the greater archaeological and cultural district of Vesuvius, beyond the popular tourist destination of Pompeii, to revitalize this economically depressed area with high unemployment. You may remember last year’s ASLA awards and Tom Leader’s Stabiae Archaeological  Park Master Plan; this is the same place.

09-bharrisonitalyseminar01Representing Cornell University at the seminar, members of Kathryn Gleason’s design studio divided into two groups. One worked with architecture students from the University of Maryland on the Castellammare di Stabia Archaeological Park, the second traveled down to Sorrento to develop design proposals for the Villa of Pollio Felix. I was in that second group.

With archaeologist and architect Professor Thomas 09-bharrisonitalyseminar02Howe, the Director of RAS, we took a beautiful drive along the coastal cliffs from Castellammare to Sorrento. The once sumptuous villa of Pollio Felix is now a fantastic ancient ruin. Unlike Pompeii or Stabiae, the zone of destruction of Vesuvius did not extend to the site of this villa, which has fallen slowly into decay over the last 2000 years. There is still a significant portion of the villa platform remaining as well as large terraces which are currently in used for agriculture and olive groves. What makes the place breathtaking is the way the villa juts out into the sea, separated from the mainland by an enclosed cove with a bridge over one side. This cove is used by 09-bharrisonitalyseminar03tourists and locals alike as a swimming hole, giving the site its local name as the Baths of Regina Giovanna — a one-time medieval queen of Naples. You just can’t beat the atmosphere.

Our design challenge lay in increasing accessibility to this secret gem without destroying the character of the place. The difficulties are a steep half-kilometer walk to the site and narrow paths with few railings, but it is magical to be able to wander through the ruins, unguarded, having a tactile experience of history. This has led to some further degradation of the site, but these ruins have been getting extensive use by locals for a very long time, and they have lasted for over 2000 years.

I hadn’t considered the crossover opportunities of archaeology and landscape architecture before this project. The cover of this month’s issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine, opportunely timed, has a design incorporating ruins in Sydney. Cornell Landscape Architecture has two professors with degrees in archaeology, and I’m absorbing as much as I can while I’m here. The whole Italian experience and being immersed in Mediterranean culture and archaeological history was fantastic. Our design proposals are being reviewed by the local mayors and communities right now and in the spring we’ll hear back about the next phase of this ongoing program. My recommendation is to get involved in something that interests you; find a non-profit or international organization and dive in. 

Bryan D. Harrison earned his undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Rhode Island and is currently pursuing his MLA at Cornell University with a concentration in Landscape History and Ecology. He can be contacted at: