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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.

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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.

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For more information about the project, visit the ASLA award website: https://www.asla.org/2013studentawards/128.html, or my personal website: http://www.minimaxstudio.com/

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: 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.

Olmsted Scholar Events in Chicago

On Nov 5-6, LAF held a series of events in Chicago to honor the 2015 Olmsted Scholars, landscape architecture students who were nominated by their faculty for demonstrating exceptional leadership potential. Thirty-four of this year’s 72 Olmsted Scholars traveled from across the U.S. and Canada to participate.

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The Olmsted Scholars Luncheon gave the scholars the opportunity to meet each other, the LAF Board of Directors, staff, and program sponsors. Short presentations from the two National Olmsted Scholars showcased the incredible people and projects that the program supports. Maria Muñoz, winner of the $15,000 undergraduate prize, presented an overview of her research on Puerto Rico’s network of local vendors, their sources of home-grown agricultural products, and how this network may offer a more environmentally sustainable and resilient type of agricultural system. Grant Fahlgren, winner of the $25,000 graduate prize, discussed traditional ecological knowledge and how it applies to landscape architecture, using the Fraser River watershed in the Cascadia Bioregion as an example.

maria-markNational Olmsted Scholar Maria Muñoz with outgoing LAF President Mark Dawson

Following the luncheon, the scholars participated in a facilitated Leadership Conversation with members of the LAF Board and Board Emeriti, discussing how to continue to pursue their passions, stay accountable, and keep motivated as they transition from school to the workforce. They also shared their thoughts on how to enhance the Olmsted Scholars Program and the community of scholars, who now number 391 as the program enters its ninth year.

The events culminated with the LAF Annual Benefit at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. The sold-out crowd of over 500 guests honored the 2015 Olmsted Scholars during a special certificate ceremony. “What an honor and treat it was to meet this impressive group,” said outgoing LAF Board President Mark Dawson, FASLA. “The future of our profession is in good hands.”

Thank you to the generous Olmsted Scholars Program sponsors whose support makes the financial awards and events like these possible. Photos from the Annual Benefit and other Olmsted Scholar events can be found on LAF’s Flickr Photostream.

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.

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]