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Meet the 2015 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 2015 undergraduate winner and finalists, who were announced last spring. An independent jury of leaders in the landscape architecture profession selected them from a group of 29 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 2015 Olmsted Scholars will be honored at LAF’s Annual Benefit in Chicago on November 6.


National Olmsted Scholar Maria Muñoz of Louisiana State University

Maria discusses her research on food security in Puerto Rico and how enhancements to the existing network of local vendors and their sources of home-grown agricultural products could offer a more environmentally sustainable and resilient type of agricultural system.


Finalist Erin McDonald of Iowa State University

In this slideshow, Erin reflects on what landscape architecture and art mean to her. She also discusses opportunities as she embraces her new city: Houston, Texas.


Finalist Nathaniel Oakley of the University of California, Davis

Nathaniel shares his interest in finding sustainable and regenerative design solutions for landscapes affected by large scale and aging flood control infrastructure, using the examples of the Devil’s Gate Dam in Pasadena and the Arroyo Seco channel in Los Angeles, California.


Finalist Daniel Zhicheng Xu of Purdue University

[Video coming in December]


Olmsted Scholar Feature: Ethnicity and Urban Park Design – Re-Envisioning South Omaha

By Katie Leise, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

Public parks provide essential green space for people to congregate, exercise, and seek respite from the city. Since the conception of Central Park in the mid-1800s, planners and designers have strived to meet the evolving needs and profiles of urban park users. Therefore, understanding contemporary user recreation patterns and preferences is critical for relevant urban park design.

Several factors, including ethnicity, influence leisure styles and should be considered when designing parks. My Master’s Report, Re-Envisioning South Omaha Urban Parks with Community Diversity in Mind, tackles that subject with a focus on parks in South Omaha, Nebraska. Residents living in this area comprise over ten different ethnic groups. Notably, Omaha’s largest Hispanic community resides in South Omaha as well.

Through quantitative and qualitative research, including site analysis, precedent studies, and community interviews, five central themes emerged:

  1. Community Engagement
  2. Range of Recreational Activities
  3. Spatial Relationships, Design, and Design Details
  4. Parks as Social Space
  5. Maintenance, Operations, and Expectations

The themes, particularly Range of Recreational Activities and Spatial Relationships, Design, and Design Details, influence a strategy that strives to redesign urban parks in South Omaha with goals of form, function, and foundation. The design goals respond to the community’s unique ethnic composition while maintaining flexible use for all residents and visitors.


Conceptual redesigns for Lynch Park and Spring Lake Park illustrated the design goals. The proposals incorporated the leisure preferences and recreation patterns as revealed through community interviews of the Hispanic majority as well as the European, Asian, and African minority ethnic groups. The most commonly identified desires by South Omaha residents were flexible spaces, several picnic areas for large groups, continued park maintenance and upkeep, and scheduled events for residents to engage and grow relationships within their community. Connecting with local residents at convenient locations throughout South Omaha was critical to the design process.

southomaha02Conceptual redesign for South Omaha's Lynch Park

Unprogrammed spaces are key to urban parks, particularly when the community exhibits various cultural roots. Flexible areas allow visitors to utilize the space as needed to fit their recreational desires on an individual or community-wide basis. Beyond design, scheduled events at urban parks also contribute to their overall success. Utilizing local organizations and encouraging them to host activities in the parks promotes continued use. People attract people, and in ethnic groups where social life is central, activating the park is as important as the design itself.

Maintenance and upkeep, though difficult tasks, also influence visitor participation. Maintenance plans that prioritize frequently used parks contribute to the appeal and popularity of the park. Additionally, knowledgeable staff and multi-lingual signage help ethnic minority participants feel comfortable in the park environment, promote safety, and discourage discrimination.

Ethnicity is one important consideration among many that should be incorporated into urban park design. Successful urban park design ultimately responds to a community uniquely, keeping in mind, but not singling out ethnicity. As the United States continues to diversity, community-oriented design is increasingly important to landscape architects.

To read the full Re-Envisioning South Omaha Urban Parks with Community Diversity in Mind report, visit:

Katie Leise completed her Master of Landscape Architecture from Kansas State University in May 2015.  She is currently employed with Kimley-Horn & Associates in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: The Cultural Landscapes of Okhamandal, Gujarat, India

By Heena Gajjar, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

Okhamandal in Gujarat, considered as one of the four holy sites across the Indian subcontinent, is facing drastic pressures of climate change leading to rising sea levels, salt ingress, desertification, unproductive land, and scarcity of water for drinking and farming. Its hertitage sites also face a severe threat from modern day development.

My graduate thesis project, Journeys in the Cultural Landscapes of Okhamandal, explores various site-specific design interventions to deal with the above issues. I propose an ecological framework model for heritage conservation with the aim of raising awareness about how harmony between nature and culture can be promoted through planning and design. Specifically the study is useful to:

  1. Understand the overlap between mythology and history in the making of cultural heritage in the Indian subcontinent
  2. Learn how ecological planning can contribute to heritage conservation
  3. Apply reclamation strategies for coastal erosion and salt ingress
okhamandal01Mapping of natural features and environmental disturbances

Okhamandal was formerly an island and is now a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, which lies between the desert and the sea. The name ‘Okhamandal’ derives from ‘Okha’ - the only and ‘Mandal’ - an island. The Hindu god Krishna established his kingdom in antiquity on this island. Upon his death, the sacred city of Dwarka was swallowed by the sea, a legend corroborated by underwater archaeological findings dating back to the 15th century BCE on the coastal edge of Okhamandal (Rao, 1999; Gaur, 2004).

Myth and history overlap in this landscape of immense cultural significance, and I see this as an opportunity to understand Krishna beyond a deity as an active, living divine consciousness that permeates the environment. I believe Krishna consciousness can help in re-establishing the link with the cosmic order that ensures the balance between nature and culture. Though considered complex in its linkage, if perceived in a sympathetic and holistic manner, the relationship can be interpreted as: nature, the primary force or the cosmic order governing our existence, and culture as a collective set of norms that shape the landscape. Together nature and culture define the landscape and are responsible for our evolution and sustenance.

okhamandal02Design for sea edge condition to mitigate coastal erosion and water level rise. Floating deck with periscope allows visitors to view the underwater archaeological discoveries.

In projecting a future for reclamation and heritage conservation of Okhamandal, I studied landscape processes and documented sacred and archaeological sites. The biggest issue of the region is salt ingress increasing at a rate of 30 hectare per year. Salt intrusion has a direct relationship with groundwater that is depleting at significantly high rate. My design proposals would help to replenish ground water and hold rain water in reclaimed ponds and wetlands. I propose floating green islands to reduce the impact of sea waves and prevent coastal erosion and mangrove edge as a permeable layer to mitigate the rising sea level. The main intention is to educate, encourage and empower the local communities and pilgrims visiting the place.

okhamandal03A vision of a reclaimed Okhamandal

The full project report can be accessed at:

Heena Gajjar is in her final year of study toward a Master of Landscape Architecture degree at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. This is her graduate thesis project. In summer 2015, Heena participated in the SWA Summer Student Program and worked in the Dallas and San Francisco offices.  

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Revitalizing Colon, Panama's Second City

By Kendra Hyson, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

Located 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Panamá City, lies Colón - Panamá’s “Second City” and the Atlantic port entrance to the Panamá Canal. Originally commissioned as a way station to California during the gold rush, Colón is the Atlantic terminal entrance to one of the world’s most important trade routes. Colón has and continues to act as a hub of trade for the country and embodies a distinct cultural connection to the African diaspora that makes this city a notable piece in the Panamanian mosaic. Formerly a marsh coral island that has since been infilled, Colón illustrates an eclectic blend of architectural styles reminiscent of the city’s development and history as a conduit for international trade.

Politically and domestically Panamá is enjoying a time of prosperity with improved infrastructure and peaceful democracy. Yet, despite the country’s positive growth and the success of the Colón Free Zone (CFZ), the city of Colón still struggles to keep up with neighboring Panamá City. Racial discrimination, corruption, drug-related violence, extreme disparities of wealth, perennial flooding, and failing infrastructure are consistent challenges affecting the city of Colón and, more importantly, the people. Great prospects for successful revitalization of the city’s infrastructure and economy exist for Colón, if only given the attention and investment it deserves.

colon02Historic Maison Blanche structure, Colón, 2012 (Image: Daniestrada01,

With an emphasis on connectivity, economic viability, green infrastructure and cultural resilience, my culminating master’s report attempted to develop a revitalization strategy for the city with the hopes of providing Colón with the opportunities evident in the thriving Panamá City. This project sought to demonstrate the immense impact of landscape architectural practices and strategies on the multilayered challenges that urban environments are met with daily, highlighting a few of the tools necessary for Colón to ultimately enhance its livelihood and quality of life for residents and visitors.

The final master plan showcases a pedestrian only promenade and anchoring waterfront on the western coast of the peninsula, allowing for increased connectivity, safety and walkability through the center of the city. The western waterfront and existing cruise ship terminal provide fixed amenities at either end of the corridor, encouraging greater pedestrian traffic east/west. The promenade bisects a large “conjunto” or housing project in the city that is currently plagued with crime and dilapidated infrastructure. Improved housing and outdoor space for existing residents were provided for in the master plan, along with an arts district, outdoor gallery, splash pad, gardens and other flexible spaces to aid in the city’s revitalization.

colon03The broad strokes of design applied in this project will hopefully inspire deeper exploration of Colón, ultimately supporting efforts to improve the city and, more importantly, the lives of the people who call it home. Colón has a rich history and wealth of culture that needs and deserves protection. The design interventions suggested in this project have only just begun to scratch the surface of what could be done in Colón.

To see the full Second City - Leveling the Playing Field: An Urban Revitalization Plan for Colón, Panamá, visit: 

Kendra Hyson completed her Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Arizona in May. She recently relocated to her hometown of Washington, DC to pursue her career in landscape architecture. Currently, she works for the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation developing educational programming geared towards enhancing youth interest in sustainable design.

Olmsted Scholar Feature: Rediscovering Colombia's Fucha River

By Viviana Castro, 2014 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist

A river that was valued once as a source of life is now channelized to control its contaminated waters, with people fearing it and perceiving it as sewage rather than a natural resource. Rediscovering the Fucha River involves exploring the opportunities of the river as a public space, creating a vision that can change the perception of the river and demonstrate how people can experience its regeneration.

I began this exploration as my senior capstone project with the goal of understating the potential of urban river restoration in Latin American development. Studying this river in particular, however, brought up many aspects that brought a different value to the notion of restoration, where first there needs to be a rediscovery.

fucha01The Fucha River today in the city of Bogotá, Colombia.

Fucha — Muyscubum for “the great female” — was one of the sources of life for the Muysca tribe in the area of Bacata (now the city of Bogotá). The Muysca had a close relationship with the river, seeing it as the place of birth for all life forms. However, as Spanish settlement began to take place, the river was used as a hydraulic source for industries developing in the twentieth century. With this change, the waters began to degrade and the river began to be seen as a source of disposal. Even the term Fucha today can be confused with the Spanish vernacular fuchi, which is a way to describe a bad smell.

The river begins with high water quality as it flows down the steep mountain ranges but begins to degrade as it enters the urban core. By the time it reaches its last stretch, the river has lost its oxygen levels and has received waste from multiple polluting sources.

I interviewed people around the river edge, asking them about their impression of the river. People commented on the constant flooding, contamination, and waste disposal into the river, and compared their experience of the river in the city to the rivers in the countryside, where activities such as paseo de olla (traditional family picnics) take place around the river. How can our culture, and the built environment, contribute to the restoration of the river?

The Rediscovering the Fucha River vision utilizes public spaces as the way to encourage a new attitude towards the river. It takes into account four general scenarios found along the one-mile stretch that repeat along the river edge and illustrates how open spaces, residences, industries, and even how the surrounding truck parking lots can contribute to the restoration of the river.

By illustrating the river through time, we can show the steps that can be taken to help its regeneration. It can begin by allowing and encouraging the river to be observed, demonstrating its value and potential through art and recreational elements. With time, the river can be approached, and eventually it can be appreciated in its natural state.  fucha03

The Fucha River runs the risk of losing its meaning and natural function if it continues to be treated as it is today. Rediscovering the Fucha River involves understanding its meaning from the past, its role today, and what it will mean for the future. Overall, this vision aims to serve as an advocacy tool towards reconsidering the value of the Fucha River within the current development of the city. This river was part of our historical values and can be restored to bring our close traditional relationship with rivers to the city. In Bogotá, we can also have a paseo de olla. Let’s recuperate our Fucha River.

To see the full Rediscovering the Fucha River report, visit:

Viviana Castro recently graduated with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture (Summa Cum Laude) and a minor in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Florida. She is currently working at Dix.Hite+Partners in Longwood, Florida.