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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Rise of the Reading Garden

By Nathania Martinez, 2017 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

nathania-martinez-garden-530wNathania sets pavers to help construct the reading garden at W.W. Irby Elementary School in Alachua, Florida.

Two years ago, Principal Valde Fortner from W.W. Irby Elementary School in Alachua, Florida, asked the University of Florida’s ASLA Student Chapter to design and build a “reading garden.” I participated in that effort, and today students and teachers enjoy the garden during class. The garden is also used for annual school events like Pop into a Good Book when parents join their children. I attended and saw parents smile with glee. Some found it hard to find time to read with their kids as often as they would like, and they were thrilled to have a space that encouraged them not only to make that time but to spend it outdoors.

The following summer I answered a call to volunteer to design another reading garden and lead a team of 17 volunteers to build it at Liberty City Elementary School in Miami, Florida. Here, I witnessed a diverse community come together to build a place where teachers and students could go to read and see colorful pollinators.

From these two projects, my curiosities about how children learn best have blossomed, and I wish to investigate whether reading gardens can inspire play that facilitates learning. While many teachers want to take their students outside, aside from lunch, physical education class, or lining up for the bus after school, children are spending most of the school day inside. My fondest childhood memories happened outdoors.

nathania-martinez-classroom-530wWith Future Landscape Architects of America and UF SCASLA, Nathania teaches students in Gainsville, Florida to design their own planting plans.

When designing for children we forget that they have ideas too — different ideas that we can learn from and be inspired by. They are not usually weighed down by practicalities, which results in some innovative ideas. I want to look to them for advice. I want to inform my practice by listening as they discover their thoughts, ideas, and perceptions about how the world works.

I am able to do this with the non-profit Future Landscape Architects of America and the University of Florida’s SCASLA advocacy team. We create lesson plans that introduce K-12 students to landscape architecture. When we ask them to brainstorm design ideas, I am always surprised at how well the children are able to communicate their needs and desires. As design professionals, we are rarely encouraged to seek advice from children. However, I want to recruit these minds to help me identify answers to my design questions. And I will look for inspiration from precedents like C. Th. Sørensen’s adventure playgrounds that foster free-spirited independent play, spark curiosity, and offer children opportunities to practice assessing risks and making decisions.  

Principal Valde told me that a boy ran off one day to sit in one of the garden’s reading nooks to calm down after feeling upset. The space is not just for reading but also for respite and play. It is a space where multiple senses can be engaged to support children’s imaginations. In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson wrote “many children delight in the small and inconspicuous.” It would be regrettable to not discover the little things in our early years, and discovery is best achieved beyond the confines of four walls.

The United Nations Article 31 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes play as a fundamental right of children. The term “reading garden” alludes to a space where the sole function seems to be a place that teachers take their pupils to read. I would like to stretch this beyond the possibly illusory belief that we can beguile our youth to read more if they do it outdoors, and to see it also as an offer of alternative environments for inquiry outside of students’ oftentimes windowless and poorly ventilated classrooms — a space where their stimulated senses can help to contribute to the stories their wondrous minds bring to life.

Nathania Martinez is a fifth year Bachelor Landscape Architecture student at the University of Florida and just completed an internship at the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB) in Washington, D.C. 

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Race, Remembrance, and Landscape in Greenwood Cemetery

By Azzurra Cox, 2016 National Olmsted Scholar

greenwood01This past September I attended Antigone in Ferguson, a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Antigone staged at Normandy High School in St. Louis County. Produced by the NYC-based theater group Outside the Wire, it brought the classical story of justice, loyalty, and redemption to a community that has been grappling with such questions — most publically in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in June 2014. Michael Brown was shot by a police officer a mere eight days after graduating from Normandy High School. His body, not unlike Antigone’s brother’s, was left in the harsh sunlight for hours. As audience members reacted to the stunning production with tears, praise, and probing questions, I couldn’t help but wonder in which auditorium seat Brown had last sat, how he had clapped, what had moved him. For an afternoon, that space became a living memorial.

What brought me to St. Louis was another site of memory just one mile away from that auditorium, in Hillsdale. Established in 1874 as the first non-denominational African-American commercial cemetery in the St. Louis area, Greenwood Cemetery is a unique cultural landscape and at the core of my research as a National Olmsted Scholar. Its 32 rolling acres house 6,000 marked graves, and up to 50,000 burials, including Dred Scott’s widow, Harriet Robinson Scott, and other notable figures. As one of the region’s late-period rural cemeteries, Greenwood speaks to both the typological and civic traditions of the picturesque cemetery; most poignantly, it embodies the right to be remembered for those who had to fight for that right. Although I haven’t yet been able to trace Greenwood’s original designer, the plan appears to reference Paris’ iconic Père Lachaise Cemetery, which inspired the notion of the American rural cemetery as a democratic space. Indeed, the people buried at Greenwood represent the full socioeconomic spectrum of the African American community, from artists to veterans, from civil rights leaders to school teachers. Greenwood historian and advocate Etta Daniels is fond of saying that the site embodies an entire historical narrative of black St. Louis.

That history is too often unspoken. A vibrant community space through the Jim Crow era, upon de juro desegregation Greenwood saw a sharp decline in use, after which divestment and rising poverty engulfed both it and the surrounding community. Today, Greenwood appears as an expanse of green surrounded by rows of modest homes, punctuated by vacant lots and boarded-up windows. Hillsdale is 96% African-American, a demographic typical of some of St. Louis’ northern suburbs. Its estimated median household income is less than half of Missouri’s median income. Ferguson, the birth of #BlackLivesMatter, lies a mere five miles away. It’s within this context that 32 acres of a vital place of African-American memory have been practically erased from the map.

Today a non-profit citizens’ group, the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association, is advocating for its clearing and restoration. My goal is to continue working with Association President Raphael Morris, Etta Daniels, Shelley Staples Morris, and other members to reimagine Greenwood as a vibrant, layered public space — one that blurs the distinction between cemetery, park, and museum. Last summer, I laid the groundwork for this long-term project by investigating and documenting the site’s cultural and ecological performance, learning from and getting to know Association members and other stakeholders to understand their desires for the site, and identifying ways in which I can lend my support and expertise. As someone who, unlike many Association members, does not have direct emotional and generational ties to the site, I see my role as an advocate above all.

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No amount of prior research could have prepared me for the spatial power of Greenwood. In the heavy St. Louis summer, the site was bursting with life. The canopy in the northern elevated portion (what I call the Forest) enveloped rudimentary paths in birdsong. Along the central axis (the Field), many hours of volunteer work had carved clear sightlines across a shallow valley. Many of the site’s urban borders (the Edge) were characterized by fencing or neglect as residents turn their back on the site. And almost everywhere, gravestones appeared in various states of reveal. Throughout this range of spatial typologies, decades of neglect enabled unusually high species diversity.

greenwood03bThe site — and the possibility of its revival — prompts questions about the narrative and political agency of place and the role of design on sensitive, sacred ground. A site of cultural memory has essentially been erased by its very material. But where we see biomass, we too often forget design. The state of Greenwood today is just as much a product of carefully designed systems — in this case, racial segregation and discrimination, as well as local and national political decisions — as were Olmsted’s parks. Yet while the tangled mass of vegetation does naturalize the structural violence embodied in the site, it is also a living testimony. Greenwood’s many histories are both covered and spoken by the landscape. So, how can design introduce new social life into a space with so much life and history already rooted into its soil? How might the site be reinterpreted as a hybrid public landscape? To what extent can landscape, as both medium and tradition, help render visible Greenwood’s many legacies? 

These are the questions I continue to ask in this work. The next step is to work with Raphael and the Association to design a multi-phase implementation plan for the future of Greenwood. Ultimately, we want to leverage the site’s layered cultural, ecological, and historical legacies into a resource for the immediate community, the metropolitan region, and beyond. The opportunity for this project to spark that feedback cycle — whether by engaging Normandy High School, addressing conditions of vacancy in Hillsdale, or creating employment opportunities — is both exciting and very daunting. Fundraising is also core to the project, with the goal of establishing a perpetual care fund to secure Greenwood’s future. And this may well be a pivotal moment, as awareness of the cultural and political significance of neglected African-American cemeteries is growing near and far. The future of Greenwood Cemetery is about a landscape, but it’s fundamentally a matter of cultural heritage and racial justice — what is past and what is yet to come.

Azzurra Cox received a Master of Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is currently working at GGN in Seattle. Azzurra first learned of Greenwood Cemetery thanks to Seth Freed Wessler, who reported and wrote a powerful piece on the site in the aftermath of Ferguson.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Waste + Abundance

By Kate Chesebrough, 2016 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

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Life creates life by making anew and reconfiguring material. Today, we are covering our planet with garbage. We have plastic bobbing in waters after storm events and hillsides strewn with illegal dumping. Waste in the landscape is an indicator of the need for care. Its presence uniquely signifies spaces that have been forgotten, are de-valued, or are otherwise being robbed of integrity. We must counter the mindset and the material of waste with creative strategies.

Philosophy of Waste

Trash is deeply seated in everyday cultural practice and is the result of deeply held values. Assigned worth indicates whether it was wasted or time well spent, wasted energy or a meaningful investment of intention. The concept of waste is a black hole that blame, regret, and frustration can be thrown into. 

Garbage is a physical manifestation of manufactured materials with the eventuality of uselessness. The social and environmental costs of producing waste are externalized from the production of shiny new things. Wasteful practices depend on an economic system that prioritizes immediate gratification and maximum profits, but minimizes accountability.

Waste informs and creates scenarios outside of itself. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter describes an “agency of things” that reverberate across natural and cultural systems. Waste is filling the landscape as it escapes the intended stream of material disposal. This is where landscape architects clearly need to act.

Political Challenge

As designers and landscape stewards, we need to have a seat at the table and exert influence during cultural, economic, and legislative discourse about waste. What if myths about the value of materials are kept alive by voices louder than our own? The opinion of the landscape architect is profound, as we speak on behalf of the landscape and the public as a codependent whole. Critical discourse about post-consumer waste means that it is no longer worthless, allowing us to re-identify with waste as both a concept and a material reality. That pause is the only place where ideas can be tested and change is possible. These are political acts. We all have a stake in this.

Design Solution

The presence of waste in the landscape is illustrative of how we can design better places and holistic systems. A thoughtful waste inventory reveals where it accumulates, what it is made of, and what it was used for. These patterns inform complex dynamics of cultural practices, user groups, topographic and hydrologic relationships, and how the site connects with others. This is an imperative design challenge, and our potential responses are limitless. We can lead the way to clean up the mess.

Toward Abundance

We can create places that hum with life at many levels. Our creative process must be generative if we wish to carry on. We must recognize waste as a political decision, as a social responsibility, and a material opportunity. We can accept this design challenge for the sake of the landscape. Together we will promote the agenda of an aesthetic of abundance.

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2016 Olmsted Scholar Finalist, ASLA Associate Member, and SUNY-ESF graduate Kate Chesebrough is a landscape designer, artist, activist, and yoga instructor living in Ithaca, New York.

Meet the 2016 National Olmsted Scholar and Finalists: The Undergraduates

The Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Olmsted Scholars Program is the premier national award and recognition program for landscape architecture students. The program honors students with exceptional leadership potential who are using ideas, influence, communication, service, and leadership to advance sustainable design and foster human and societal benefits.

Here, we showcase the 2016 undergraduate winner and finalists, who were announced in April. An independent jury of leaders in the landscape architecture profession selected them from a group of 32 undergraduate students nominated by their faculty for being exceptional student leaders. The winner receives the $15,000 undergraduate prize and each finalist receives $1,000. All of the 2016 Olmsted Scholars will be honored at LAF’s Annual Benefit in New Orleans on October 21.

 

National Olmsted Scholar Casey Howard of the University of Oregon

Casey shares first-place team project for the 2015 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge focused on food systems. Inspired by existing drainage technology used in agriculture, Casey and team developed a concept for a living filtration system to restore soil health, protect watersheds, and preserve productive lands.

 

Finalist Kathryn Chesebrough of the State University of New York

By showcasing several influential experiences, including the Red Cup Project that she led in Syracuse, New York, Kathryn shares her thoughts on the power of art, her design perspective, and sources of inspiration.

 

Finalist David Duperault of North Carolina A&T State University

[Video forthcoming. See bio here.]

 

Finalist Lyna Nget of the University of Washington

Lyna discusses her focus on evidence-based design for sustainable, inclusive, and therapeutic environments for vulnerable populations — especially those who suffer from physical and mental illnesses and disabilities.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Biodiversity and Design

By Olivia Fragale, 2016 Olmsted Scholar Finalist

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I moved to Cape Town, South Africa in 2012 to pursue a position as Assistant Researcher and Outreach Educator with the Iimbovane Project at the Department of Science and Technology - National Research Foundation (DST-NRF) Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University. This research position involved monitoring and cataloging the species richness and diversity of native and invasive ant species of the Western Cape Providence through field sampling and lab work. My interest in studying ants was to understand the correlation between human settlement patterns and the impact this has on biodiversity.

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The importance of this study was to look at the system beyond the ant. Within the Cape Floristic Region, ants play a significant role in dispersing seeds. Our team discovered a positive correlation between native ant populations and native plant growth and diversity. Sites with a high population of invasive species demonstrated a lack of native plant growth. I was drawn in by the various scales of the study. At a microscale, I was studying ants, but at the macroscale, the ant-plant mutualism relationship was about the interconnected dependencies of an ecosystem. Loss of seed production impacted seed distribution, which impacted native plant growth which impacted soil conditions, therefore increasing erosion as well as changing availability of resources in the food web. These early research endeavors in the study of biodiversity have helped shape my thinking as a designer and my aspirations to strengthen the connection between science and the design professions.

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As a recent graduate of the Boston Architectural College, I am interested in the integration of relevant and current research in biodiversity into current professional practice. When thinking about our role as landscape architects, I look at the strategies used to safeguard biodiversity, including designs that:

  • Minimize and manage habitat disruption

  • Reclaim, restore, and reconnect significant ecosystems

  • Have integrated management plans to control invasive species

  • Focus on rehabilitation of contaminated soils to reintroduce positive ecological systems

  • Establish riparian buffers to protect aquatic ecosystems

This list of strategies is something to be proud of, but I believe as knowledgeable designers, we can strengthen our understanding by performing and contributing to research that is focused on monitoring biodiversity at various sites and on various scales. We have the ability to gather baseline data about urban biodiversity, standardize methods, and perform comparison studies that start to articulate and encourage the functions and benefits of designing with diversity.

So how do we measure biodiversity and how can the produced data become integrated into how we design and manage our spatial relationships? Well, biodiversity can be measured at a species level, an ecosystem level, and at the genetic level. Methods vary in their ability to reveal information about richness, evenness, rarity, disparity, and variability. In the field of ecology, the most common methods for measuring species biodiversity are the Simpson Index and the Shannon Index. Currently the Sustainable Sites Initiative and the LAF’s Landscape Performance Series and Benefits Toolkit have identified methods for measuring vegetation and biodiversity, which include the Biomass Density Index (BDI), LEED baseline information which focuses on calculating average values for regional evapotranspiration rates, species factor, density factor, and microclimate factor for each vegetation types. Collecting data and establishing measuring systems for biodiversity can inform our designs, manage our spatial relationships, and respond to scientific trends.

I am excited to participate in the collection and evaluation of valuable biodiversity data and contribute to the advancement of biodiversity-directed design strategies through the lens of my proposed research project that focuses on the relationship between biodiversity and biomimicry wastewater technologies. I believe the design of nature-inspired, living technologies is a powerful tool to align communities with the regenerative capacities of the plant’s life-supporting ecosystems. More specifically, living systems can be monitored to further understand how biodiversity is being recovered, established, and linked back into the community’s health, economic, and cultural experiences.

In my next blog post, I will elaborate on my proposed project and explore, at the community level, the important relationship between biodiversity and biomimicry wastewater technologies and how its diverse application can reveal and expose systems as they relate to human development and biological existence.

Olivia completed her MLA from Boston Architectural College in May and now works at Terraink in Arlington, Massachusetts.  While she is focused on transitioning into her new job, she looks forward to future project development.  In the meantime, she continues to pursue her project interests through continued dialogue with the research groups in South Africa and has another visit planned for 2017.