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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Landscape and Cultural Identity in a Globalizing World

By Daniel Xu, 2015 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

“Place makes memories cohere in complex ways. People’s experiences of the urban landscape intertwine the sense of place and the politics of space.”
                                                       — Dolores Hayden, Architectural Historian

A long time ago, a classmate of mine told me that he could not visually distinguish the difference between a Chinese, a Korean, and a Japanese person. I laughed and told him that sometimes I could not either, because our differences were not simply in our appearances, but in our minds and ideologies, which were influenced by the native culture we were born into. However, if our minds and ideologies are so heavily influenced by culture, what makes us different in the trend of globalization and acculturation? Are we slowly becoming the same? It is an intriguing question.

Prior to 2009, I was a resident of Chengdu, one of the most populated metropolises in Western China, where traditional Chinese quadrangle dwellings are preserved and conflated with contemporary urban fabric and lifestyle. Since then, I have been a student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana and a traveler to cities around the world. This experience has given me opportunities to immerse myself in diverse cultures, discover landscapes and urban spaces that are unique to different social environments, and tackle how local residents interact with those spaces.


Social psychologist Harold M. Proshansky believes that the cultural identity of a place is a sub-structure of a person’s self-identity and consists of knowledge and feelings developed through everyday experiences of physical spaces. Sometimes cultural identity and landscape are so tightly bounded that it is hard to separate them, like gardens in Versailles, Central Park in New York City, or a random prairie plateau in Aberdeen, Scotland. These spaces are historical or unique mainly because of local natural characteristics. They establish a balance between nature and human cultural activities and provide people a sense of place and belonging. However, in the global trend of uniformity and homogeneousness, how can one ensure a newly proposed landscape design can achieve the same effect? How can urban landscape enhance regional cultural identity and provide a sense a place?

To me, any given land contains information that is both tangible and intangible. It is almost natural for us to study the tangible aspects — hydrology, topography, vegetation, land use, soil type, spatial organization, and circulation system — because they have a direct relationship to the visual and ecological outcomes of a project. However, the cultural identity of a place derives from the intangible parts in which a piece of landscape functions to provide a sense of belonging — local history, tradition, religion, festivals, public desire, and other demographic information.

I demonstrated my beliefs in my past works during my time at Purdue. Natural Water as Cultural Water, a research project I did during junior year, sought to find the balance between culture and nature along the Wabash River in Lafayette, Indiana, which is currently underappreciated because of flooding, vacancy and disconnection. The proposed solution is an embodiment of cultural representation and technology of stormwater management. wabash02

The inspiration for the design comes from the city’s history — the transportation instrument Native Americans originally used on the river, and the major agricultural product of the region: corn. The geometric structure of the canoe and the matrix of the corn seeds were taken, hybridized and re-conceptualized into revelatory units to construct concave and convex landforms. It reroutes and collects water and serves as a buffer between the river and the city during flooding seasons. The plan provides a refuge for wetland plants and animal species. With potential for spontaneous use and dynamic programing, the site can transform into a sustainable landscape infrastructure with a cultural identity that provides an active waterfront experience. The regional planning phase of the project won the Award of Excellence in Analysis and Planning in the American Society of Landscape Architects 2013 Student Awards.


For more information about the project, visit the ASLA award website:, or my personal website:

Daniel received his Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture with a minor in Fine Arts from Purdue University in May 2015. He is currently working at Sasaki Associates in Boston.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Exploring Relationships Between People and Water

By Sarah Bolivar, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

Now that I am in my third and final year of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) Master of Landscape Architecture program, I think back to the query that brought me to the design field: how people manage water, a transboundary resource. In retrospect, this interest has remained constant, although I could not have imagined the various scales and issues I’d study pertaining to water. Through the GSD, I have been fortunate to examine stormwater in Nepal, the role of paths in the context of tsunami evacuation, and now, a thesis around tribal salmon harvest in the Pacific Northwest.

During the summer of 2014, with the support of the South Asia Institute and GSD Community Service Fellowship, I traveled 15 hours by plane and 16 hours by bus to Surkhet, Nepal, a verdant valley overlaid by housing, commerce, and agriculture in the subtropical Terai belt. A friend at Kopila Valley, a school serving 350 students, connected me with the managing non-profit, BlinkNow, which invited me to provide landscape design strategies for a new school complex. I led hands-on workshops so students could learn about landscape architecture and I could learn about their favorite spaces, but I struggled to find the best ways to integrate students’ voices into the project. One clear element was the monsoon season that would soon come, and with it, potential flooding or erosion throughout the school. Part of the design strategy revolved around tackling and revealing these water flows. A week after I returned to the states, a monsoon caused rivers to swell, and massive flooding coupled with landslides left hundreds without homes.

bolivar01-nepalSurkhet, Nepal (Image: Jack Cochran)

Given that Nepal is prone to earthquakes and landslides, I was eager to learn more about places that could serve as precedents for responding to natural disasters. With the financial support of the Asia Center and GSD Penny White Fund, my friend, Jessie Booth (MLA ‘16), and I traveled to low-density coastal cities in Japan, Kamaishi and Ishinomaki, both devastated by the 3/11 Tsunami. We sought to understand the role that landscape could play in supporting natural disaster preparedness. Specifically, we wondered how pedestrian evacuation paths could become imprinted in the collective memory to serve residents during emergency and non-emergency times.

bolivar02-japanCoastal infrastructure in Ishinomaki, Japan

One of the biggest takeaways was each city’s reconstruction plan did not necessarily work in tandem with neighboring cities’ plans. Each city could be broadly characterized either by a “bottom-up” or “top-down” reconstruction approach. Additionally, most affected cities are continuing to invest in structures that have a singular use and narrow lifespan, such as tetrapods and seawalls. This spring, Jessie and I will synthesize our research findings into a document we can share with our friends and partners in Japan.

Working in Japan and Nepal allowed me to be acutely aware of the challenges designers face when the site has a different cultural context than one’s own, the site is thousands of miles away, the work is pro-bono, and the work is conceived within an academic umbrella. Each of these conditions renders its own opportunities and challenges.

I reflect constantly on the politicized nature of my role as I develop a thesis around a place that is dear to me, the Salish Coast, located in the Pacific Northwest. In this region, I’ll be exploring the role that design can play in supporting salmon habitat and harvest to thereby protect indigenous sovereignty rights for the Lummi and Nooksack Nations. Given that indigenous people have been systematically oppressed through physical force and political contracts, I must understand that my language and actions are too, as my friend Elizabeth Bragg of the Blackfoot Nation would put it, “colored by colonizing practices of the past.”

bolivar03-nooksackriverNooksack River, general thesis site in the Pacific Northwest

And as I begin to develop the project, I come back to the issue of water, in this case, the hydrological conditions that affect salmon reproduction. With the guidance of my thesis advisor, Jane Hutton, and thesis cohort, I look forward to continuing to explore the relationship between people and water in all its multifaceted forms.

Sarah Bolivar is currently working on her thesis, as well as planning International Women’s Day on March 08 with the GSD Women in Design team.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Spaces of Conflict, Spaces of Opportunity

By Logan Littlefield, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

The effects of conflict on the urban landscape are far reaching and multi-faceted.

Beirut, Lebanon is a case in which the continued political instability spawned by its 15-year civil war (1975-1990) has exacerbated a physical and cultural erosion of the public realm. This has allowed areas of natural, cultural, and civic heritage to be co-opted by private luxury development, preventing them from serving as potential devices to foster social cohesion and civic identity. The unprecedented tabula rasa reconstruction of Beirut’s central district by a private development company exemplifies this condition.

My graduate thesis project, Confronting the Present: Towards a Civic Realm on Beirut’s Urban Fringe, explores the opportunities presented by peri-urban infrastructural landscapes to address this condition. To do so, my research was two-fold: an inventory of designated and spontaneous public space types in Beirut, and a rational for civic space in more unlikely spaces.

beirut01Inventory of public space types

The peri-urban Beirut River became a testing ground for a new prototype of civic space. Opportunity lies in its ambiguous ownership, neglect, infrastructural qualities, and tenuous identity as a natural feature, where an intervention is less likely to spawn gentrification. It was also consistent with inventory findings that the dominating adjacency for more informal forms of public manifestation was infrastructure.

Though the space is aesthetically unlikely, socially and demographically speaking however, it is fitting for social cohesion since, though situated in the largely Christian eastern half of Beirut, the site is located within the most prominent Armenian neighbourhoods. This community resisted taking sides during the war, making their areas relatively neutral grounds for interaction compared to other more cloistered Christian or Muslim districts. There is also increasing ethnic and religious diversity here due to affordable rents, urban migration and the influx of refugees.

The proposed design prototype deploys and hybridizes local spatial types onto the infrastructural landscape to create a new urban topography, the next iteration in the evolving transformation of the Beirut river from seasonally flooding estuary to channelized riverbed.

A series of platforms are created, some programmed and others not, which together form a transverse connection of civic space across the river and multiple highways to meet the needs of surrounding neighbourhoods.

beirut02Proposed design prototype with a series of platforms to connect across the river and highways

Some of the approaches or tactics used in my thesis work were generic, and others are very specific. This is something that I am grappling with as I relate these research interests to my new locale: South Africa. Public realm erosion is an issue here as well, as is a history of conflict and and social instability, albeit for different reasons. However, the fragmentation or lack of use of the public realm by all often has to do with fears of violent crime due to wealth inequality, which is a much different social context than in Beirut.

My thesis project was the recipient of a 2015 ASLA Student award and can be viewed in more detail at:


Logan completed his MLA from the University of Toronto in May 2015 and is currently living in South Africa. He is beginning work at a firm in Cape Town in January 2016.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Sustainable Sediment Management in the Los Angeles Basin

By Nathaniel Oakley, 2015 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

“A week ago the rains began in Los Angeles, slicking the streets into road accidents, crumbling the mud from the hillsides and toppling houses into canyons, washing the world into the gutters and storm drains…When the rains come in Los Angeles they always take people by surprise.”

                                                                        — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Towering above the Los Angeles basin at the kink in the San Andreas Fault lies the transverse San Gabriel Mountain range. Rising over 10,000 feet into the sky at its highest point, it is known for its destructive debris flows as written about extensively by John McPhee and others. The tectonic force of the Pacific Plate grinding against the North American plate uplift the mountain range at the rate of one millimeter per year (fast in geologic time), and the repeated cycle of denuding conflagrations and orographic precipitation erase much of that progress.

la-sedimentationThe sedimentation engine in the Los Angeles basin

Toward the western end of the range, the headwaters of the Arroyo Seco River (a major tributary of the Los Angeles River) make their way into a watershed that is over 95% urbanized. At the moment, this highly developed watershed is protected from flooding and the ever-eroding San Gabriels by a series of anthropogenic infrastructural interventions, the largest being the Devil’s Gate Dam and a series of concrete channels that the Arroyo now flows through.

arroyoseco-watershedThe Arroyo Seco River Watershed flow path and context

The Dam, plagued by a history of sedimentation, is now at half of its original capacity. Normally, excess sediment is excavated and brought to nearby landfills, but recent fires and rain events have left L.A. County playing catch-up in order to maintain reservoir capacity. If storage behind Devil’s Gate is compromised, communities along the Arroyo are potentially at risk of flooding. Surprisingly, many of these nearby inhabitants were unaware there ever could be a flood risk as most of the time the channel remains dry, save for urban runoff trickling through the low-flow portion of the channel.

In addition to the sediment build up, downstream conditions of the Arroyo Seco are bleak. Wildlife habitat has been replaced with cold concrete, and most of it remains inaccessible to the public as the invert can drop off precariously to depths of 30 feet in some reaches and can quickly turn dangerous during storms. During heavy rains motorists have found themselves stranded, clamoring to the channel walls, requiring swift water rescue. Very little water that stems from the Arroyo Seco is allowed to recharge groundwater supplies, and the habitat-building sediment it delivers from the San Gabriels is trapped, destined for nearby landfills.

A strengthening El Niño climate cycle is predicted heading into 2016, which will hopefully give drought-stricken California much needed precipitation. With the return of wet weather, fast moving storm water will return to the Arroyo Seco delivering sediment from the crumbling slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains. Devil’s Gate Dam will be tested, while potential aquifer-replenishing rainwater will be sent directly to the ocean via impervious channels. Herein lies opportunity for discussion and implementation of unique water conservation and sustainable sediment management design strategies that go beyond the business as usual, Sisyphean, approaches of fighting sediment and flushing rain water out of the city.

My Senior Project at UC Davis, The Barrier: Seeking Sustainable Sediment Management Solutions for Devil’s Gate Dam, discusses these issues and proposes regenerative design strategies and interventions to balance natural sediment delivery, water storage, flood control and habitat restoration.The report and a short video discussing this research can be accessed at:

In May, Nathaniel Oakley received his Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture degree from the University of California, Davis. He is currently working as a Landscape Architect Assistant at Callander Associates in the Sacramento area.

Meet the 2015 National Olmsted Scholar and Finalists: The Graduate Students

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 2015 graduate student winner and finalists, who were announced last spring. An independent jury of leaders in the landscape architecture profession selected them from a group of 43 graduate students nominated by their faculty for being exceptional student leaders. The winner receives the $25,000 graduate prize and each finalist receives $1,000. All of the 2015 Olmsted Scholars will be honored at LAF’s Annual Benefit in Chicago on November 6.


National Olmsted Scholar Grant Fahlgren of the University of British Columbia

Grant discusses the 7 generations philosophy of his Anishinabae ancestors, traditional ecological knowledge, and how it applies to landscape architecture, using the Fraser River watershed in the Cascadia Bioregion as an example.



Finalist Andrea Johnson of the City College of New York

Andrea discusses her interest in how design can empower communities that have historically been marginalized, including her work on land intervention strategies to improve quality of life in low income communities in South Africa.



Finalist Teresa Pereira of Temple University

Teresa discusses her goal to expand the interdisciplinary boundaries of landscape architecture by utilizing filmmaking to address experiential, ecological, and social components of landscape analysis.



Finalist Harris Trobman of the University of Maryland

Harris showcases a recently completed design-build project at a school campus for 500 children in northern Haiti and discusses his current action-oriented research as a Green Infrastructure Specialist at the University of the District of Columbia.