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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Towards a Greater Knowledge Base

by Bram Barth, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

In 2002, Michael Speaks, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Kentucky, coined the phrase ‘design intelligence’ in a series of articles for A + U magazine to describe “that ‘unseen’ array of techniques, relationships, dispositions, and other intangibles, that enables post vanguard practices to innovate by learning from and adapting to instability, and in so doing to distinguish themselves from their vanguard predecessors.” I use the phrase here to represent the bricolage of knowledge that individuals, firms, project teams, etc. possess that allow them to not only operate at the most basic design levels but more importantly, to build upon in order to push their bounds. Indeed, these intelligences come in multiple forms, including extended periods of professional experience or cultivated research as well as interpretation of real-time field data and awareness of pertinent current events.

08-bbarth-intelligence01Sub-watershed Informational thread diagram

Subsequently, my research focuses on framing the role of intelligence within the discipline of landscape architecture, utilizing the Chicago River Watershed as a vehicle of study. Inspired by the works of design strategists such as Alan Berger, Associate Professor of Urban Design and Landscape Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I have begun an assemblage of regional data sets based primarily in GIS technologies. Also included is a preliminary inventory of existing institutional frameworks. In this sense, a marriage between the understanding of ecological dynamics, infrastructural systems, and human organizations has begun to emerge that spans multiple scales.

08-bbarth-intelligence02Conceptual plan that engages existing water channels, drainage infrastructure, and key land parcels in design at the watershed scale

Particularly challenging is the navigation between the polar extremes of these scales, namely regional planning and site design, where a quote from Berger’s Systemic Design Can Change the World has served as a guide – “I promote using the new tools of analysis [GIS, www, etc.] to expand site program and strategy outward, adjusting and feeding back small scale issues based on large scale logic all the way through the design process. The resulting project is smarter and more sustainable [able to live without expensive, infinite inputs] if larger scale logic is embedded in the smaller scale proposals.”

Utilizing my collection of data sets in a series of regional analyses, I have begun to examine large-scale relationships and connections that might not otherwise have been observed. Common characteristics among landscapes that are miles apart have surfaced, revealing potentially unexpected bases for design collaboration. Additionally, details associated with single sites have served to distinguish and clarify their role in larger contexts. In this manner, sites are never reduced to isolated parcels but rather remain viewed in relation to the whole. Given the large scale of the Chicago River Watershed, however, this type of analysis is virtually limitless where my work up to this point has only begun to scratch the surface.

For more information over the coming months, research findings and design engagement will be posted at

Bram Barth earned his undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture from Ball State University and is currently pursuing his MLA at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Following graduation, he will return to practice as a licensed landscape architect for WRD Environmental, an ecological consulting firm based in Chicago. For questions regarding his research and work, he may be contacted at

Olmsted Scholar Feature: On Balancing the Professional with the Personal

by Timothy Gazzo, 2010 Olmsted Scholar

Elizabeth Myer, one of the leading landscape architectural theorists in the United States, gave an interview in Terragrams at the end of which she discusses her advice for recent graduates,

“It’s very easy when you start working to maintain the same kind of rhythm you had in school… I encourage them to find a space within the first few years of practice to do some of their own work… something so that they have an identity that’s outside of the practice and I think that’s fundamental.”

And I believe herein lies the tension that defines many people as they leave academia.

At the time, I was knee deep with my capstone, straddling programs in landscape architecture and environmental forest biology, student teaching and preparing my portfolio. Yet her words struck a distinctive chord within. Could I actually lose the rhythm I established for myself and achieve a balance between my personal and professional goals? I resolved that I would not be sucked into the vortex of professional practice and lose my idealism to the rigors of production.

07-tgazzotransitionSince last June, I have been working at Dirtworks Landscape Architecture PC and find myself adjusting to professional practice quite well. The projects are interesting and there is a steady stream of creative stimuli around me every day. David Kamp, FASLA, the president of the firm, spoke candidly to me about his experiences as a young landscape architect and the importance of not only just working, but also pursuing the passion we develop on our own for this profession. This came from a man who had clear expectations of my role as an employee and an even clearer understanding of the value in cultivating the talent within his office.

On occasion, I am presented with opportunities to collaborate and visually interpret landscape design concepts with the foundation I learned in academia. These concepts range from large-scale ecologically mediated sites to sustainably challenged residences on Long Island. This endeavor allows me to combine my creative vision with that of my academic fundamentals, making it not only visually arresting but also relevant.

So when I ask myself what have I been doing since I graduated? The answer is simple. I’ve been enjoying myself by balancing the roles of being a landscape architect with that of following my passion and forging an identity for myself outside of the practice. Within the office, I straddle two worlds: the one I established for myself during my education with the one necessitated by the rigors of production. Outside, I’m pursuing the discussions I began during my capstone on ecological integration within urban centers and find myself more focused in my work, with a deeper appreciation of how nature interacts in the urban environment.

In short, I am working towards achieving a balance between my passion and my work, and I’m having a pretty good time doing it.

Timothy Gazzo graduated from SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry with a Masters in Landscape Architecture in May of 2010. He began working for Dirtworks Landscape Architecture PC in the late spring and is currently looking to further the research he began in graduate school through volunteering efforts on the north shore of Long Island.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Delhi in 3 Days

by Lauren Hackney, 2010 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

In mid-November, I traveled to Delhi, India with UVA professor Peter Waldman to attend a U21-sponsored conference. U21 is an international network of 23 universities who engage in research collaborations, together and with cities and environments around the world, that facilitate several ongoing projects, including the Water Futures for Sustainable Cities Project. Our focus was Theme 2, restoration/rehabilitation of urban river corridors – in this case, the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges. The conference brought together geomorphologists, statisticians, environmental scientists, and students at Delhi University to study the Yamuna through hydrological, quantitative, and qualitative and cultural lenses. As designers, Professor Waldman and I were to address the role of architecture and landscape architecture as agents and products of urbanization, and the opportunity of our disciplines to negotiate the intersection of urbanization processes with ecological and geological processes. For our 72 hours in India, the most succinct observation I have is: India is a place of many, many contrasts.

After arriving in Delhi to a hazy sky and a pre-deplaning dousing of mosquito repellent (sprayed by flight attendants throughout the plane!), Delhi University professors spoke to us about the large spatial spread of this conference, about the issues wrapped up in the concept of Water Futures – food security, energy, public health, biodiversity – and about the feedback mechanism between urbanization and geological processes. The vocabulary resonated between landscape architecture/architecture and the other disciplines in attendance: ideas of geomorphological connectivity operating on a range of temporal and spatial scales; cultural values of water with hygiene and ecosystem health implications; anthropogenic and socioeconomic factors relative to water systems; mediated and abstract quantification of material exchange across river regions. Abstraction felt especially palpable, as I felt entirely unprepared to make sense of an urban condition fluctuating more rapidly than almost any other in the world.

06-lhackneydelhi01Delhi's water supply is extracted from groundwater in this agricultural landscape north of the city, often submerged during flood season.06-lhackneydelhi02The Wazirabad barrage is located at the confluence of two major stormwater drains in northern Delhi.

Our second day took us to two barrages along the Yamuna and to the extraction area for Delhi’s water supply. Our first stop was Wazirabad, the convergence of two stormwater drains flowing into the Yamuna. Nearly invisible from street level at this time of year in northern Delhi, the water’s presence is mostly manifest through smell: strongly sulfuric and overwhelming. Driving further north to Delhi’s water source, a traffic jam (pretty common, we discovered) re-routed our vans through a village more dense than anything I’ve seen – a matrix of mostly dilapidated structures, dirt roads wide enough for one car and two people, open sewers.

06-lhackneydelhi03The ISBT barrage is located in the center of Delhi; this floodplain is submerged up to 8' during flood season.

A Delhi University professor involved in the water supply engineering explained that 35 million gallons per day are extracted from groundwater (replenished during the flood season), which meets only about 20% of the demand; of this, 30% is lost to leakage and pilferage in supply infrastructure. Beyond structural problems, political negotiation is a major factor, regarding drawdown of regional river levels and proposed local regulation of wells, not politically viable until the city guarantees widespread water infrastructure; contamination of local aquifers is also problematic, though limited in scope, and high arsenic concentrations in central Delhi contaminate urban agricultural plots.

Seeing the expansive floodplain in the dry season and imagining its inundation by 8’ of water during flood season, learning more about ongoing research and supply/demand issues, and hearing familiar phrases – shifting floodplains, space for the river – described by scientists and statisticians in their conception of the river’s adaptation, I saw many opportunities for expanded, productive collaborations between these disciplines and design disciplines that I had not anticipated. For me, this day raised the most pressing questions of the trip.  In a place of extreme contrast between wealth and poverty, intermittent infrastructure, and rapid flux of population and density, how might ‘sustainable city’ be defined? Is there a tipping point beyond which sustenance and growth of a city is no longer possible, and what is it? And, as designers, how can we define our role through these questions?

On our third day, one of Professor Waldman’s former students showed us some of the lovelier places in Delhi — Humayun’s tomb, the Red Fort, Lodi Gardens, and the Lodi Estate – and described his burgeoning architecture practice and the differences in building culture between the U.S. and India, where craft traditions are strong and construction and material practices are highly place-specific. One of our conference colleagues observed how people occupy “every square meter of space” – and it was exciting to imagine the potential for incremental and spontaneous landscapes, both permanent and seasonal – adaptation of underpasses, temporary markets and structures in the dry riverbed, interventions in the space of the streets. The intensity of the street felt like a spatial metaphor for the intensity of this trip: navigating the superimposition and weaving of many speeds and modes of moving; cars, rickshaws, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, walkers, all moving in a self-organizing, if chaotic, choreography –embodied the vast spectrum of experiences and questions we collected over the course of only 72 hours.

The outcome of the U21 conference is a position paper outlining a hypothesis for collaborative research using the Yamuna River + Delhi region as a case study for urban stream adaptation. For my part, I am energized by what we learned, by the discussion with local experts and international researchers, and by the inclusion of design in the conversation. Since the visit, I’ve been torn between a sense of powerlessness (does anything I’ve learned so far apply to densities, scarcities, and fluctuations like those that comprise Delhi?) and a sense of excitement about the emerging role of landscape architecture in imagining futures both for megacities and for shrinking cities.

Lauren Hackney is a Masters candidate in Landscape Architecture and Architecture at the University of Virginia. Her current thesis work is studying issues of public health and energy in shrinking cities,  questioning how the regeneration of industrial sites in these communities reframes and broadens the practice of landscape architecture. She will graduate in May 2011.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: DesignConnect

by Christopher Roth Hardy, 2010 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

Members of many communities share a common, if unstated, vision for their home. It may take the form of a revitalized historic district, a new waterfront, a safe playground or simply more street trees.

Most projects require personal and public investment to make these changes happen. To gain this public investment, local groups often need to invest in competitive documentation to get public grants to enable these changes. These groups may have the public mandate to make change, but not the resources to create the documentation to gain financial support. This creates a public improvement ‘Catch 22’ in economically distressed small communities.

designconnect1The DesignConnect team in early 2010

In 2008, Jennifer Ng and I started a student-run organization called DesignConnect at Cornell University, with the support of our faculty mentors Peter Trowbridge, Dan Krall, Jamie Vanucchi, Deni Ruggeri and Pike Oliver. The organization enables design, planning and engineering students to volunteer on public improvement projects in communities in Upstate New York. Students receive academic credit in addition to their curriculum required courses. The students work with a community sponsor and faculty advisor to develop and execute a design strategy for each project.

designconnect2DesignConnect at a public meeting with the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed

The design strategy generally includes participatory workshops to develop a community articulated vision for the projects in addition to site analysis, feasibility studies, design documentation and production. The local governments can use the documentation to further grant applications and inform local spending allocations in public space.

This past summer, DesignConnect made a successful transition to the new student administration. Currently, over 70 students are engaged in 8 different projects in communities across Upstate New York. They are continuing to bring in new projects, coordinate faculty partnerships and enable students to work on projects ranging in size from park master plans to new gazebos.

I have moved to New York City, and am now working for Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. Here, I have had the opportunity to be staff member on a large scale schematic design project, to take a small public space project in Queens that I designed as an intern into construction documents and to assist on other projects across the boroughs. While at Cornell I focused my studies on community participation and the front-end aspects of master planning and design. Here at MNLA, I’m learning about the complexity of construction in New York City and the latter stages of design and documentation. I have been pleased to discover that my interest in horticulture, design, construction, community action, and even environmental toxicology are all part of my work experience. I have been able to observe some of the initial DesignConnect projects receive grants and move toward RFPs, and I continue to support these communities as opportunities arise. I am amazed at the diversity and depth of knowledge that is required to practice in our field - from politics to pavers - and I have the good fortune to learn from a new set of mentors.

Chris Hardy graduated from Cornell University in May with a Masters in Landscape Architecture. He now lives in Brooklyn and works for Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects. Outside of work, Chris is discovering his new community and has started volunteering in his neighborhood on a small design-build public space.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Invasive Infrastructure - Free and Radical

by David Godshall, 2010 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

One of the starkest dichotomies on which the profession of landscape architecture is built is a distinction between healthy, ‘sustainable’ landscapes and derelict, unwanted spaces. Much of my research involves the idioms in which landscape architecture could creatively engage with these latter spaces. The dichotomy can be drawn along many lines, but perhaps nowhere is it more obvious than it is with respect to plants.

04-dgodshallinvasive01We live in a moment in which plants are meticulously categorized, scrutinized, studied, and ultimately, judged. Species that meet specific, value-based criteria (natives!) are celebrated in magazines, newly built landscapes, and plant nurseries. Meanwhile, species deemed to be invasive undergo a kind of tacit persecution. Their snapshots are posted on websites; their locations are mapped, tracked, and surveilled; conferences are even held in which we listen to lectures on how to eradicate the species entirely. One would think, on initial perusal through any pro-native/anti-invasive website or literature, that the argument is really as simple as regarding some plants as rightful citizens 04-dgodshallinvasive02of a landscape, others as “illegals.”

Invasive species, in many instances, are truly harmful. They choke out native flora, overtake riparian corridors, and diminish the availability of habitat for native or naturalized fauna. In large parks and wilderness areas, which often serve as the last oasis for native plant communities, they are clearly the most damaging. Yet, something interesting happens when we shift the context from a wilderness area to a derelict urban space. Invasive plants are often the only species capable of 04-dgodshallinvasive03effectively colonizing and flourishing in polluted urban areas. On vacant lots and street edges they sprout from cracks and seams in the urban carpet, and serve as free, non-planned tracts of urban wilderness. These fragmentary ecological landscapes provide lonely habitats for species that don’t understand their own biological reality in terms of nativism and its opposites.

The dilemma of invasive plants, and the semantic overlap between the way in which we talk about them and the way in which we talk about issues like immigration, gentrification, globalization, and the criminal system, has been guiding much of the research, writing, and art I’ve been focusing on lately. I’ve recently begun hiking into wilderness areas at night and photographing invasive plants in a manner reminiscent of the tabloid photography of Weegee—literally catching these plants in the moment of their crimes. By contrast, I have also begun documenting them in less lurid daytime moments, in an attempt to capture their ecological complexity and visual appeal. In addition, I’ve been working hard on the publication of the second issue of Landskrape Heartattachture, an inflammatory but engaging journal about ‘Landscape’ and all its ramifications. The second issue will be released soon. If you’d like to be involved or get a copy of the first journal, please email me at

David Godshall graduated from UC Berkeley with a Masters in Landscape Architecture, and after a brief and wonderful sojourn to Hawaii, began working for Peter Walker and Partners in Berkeley, California. He is currently working on the design development phase of a waterfront park in Australia for PWP.